How much do we really know about North Korea?
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 20:30

They were told it was the greatest nation on earth. But they could see for themselves the poverty, the power black-outs and the mysterious 'disappearances’ of friends and relatives.

This week on Insight, defectors join Jenny Brockie in the studio to help paint a picture of life in North Korea.

They’re joined by some of the world’s best brains and analysts who will try to piece together what’s unfolding in the secretive state in the aftermath of recent posturing and fist shaking by leader Kim Jong-un.

Is North Korea a real threat? Or is it just a lot of hot air? The price of a miscalculation could be high.

Presenter: Jenny Brockie  

Producer: Kym Middleton 

Associate Producer: Luan McKenna 

Web Extra: Hyeonseo and Dick reunite

Insight associate producer Luan McKenna explains how he pulled off the surprise reunion between Hyeonseo and Dick. Read the story here and watch the video of their meeting below. 

Defecting from North Korea

Andrew Lee, 26, says he defected from North Korea about 10 years ago. Click through to find out more about his journey out of North Korea, as told to Insight producer Kym Middleton.

To start, click "play" and wait a few seconds. The use the arrows on the bottom to click through Andrew's story.


JENNY BROCKIE: Hi, I'm Jenny Brockie and tonight we are talking about North Korea. First I'd like to try to get a picture of life inside one of the most secretive countries in the world. Andrew, you're a good person to ask about this because you spent your teenage years in North Korea as a street kid. What was it like?

ANDREW LEE, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR: When I was 12, my father left home and then after a month later, my mum also left home, and so I was alone, and so I became a street boy. I spent times - four years, on the street with my friends. We call them beggar, yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE: We will talk about the begging in a moment but you say your father left home. What do you mean he left home?

ANDREW LEE: To seek food to China, that is illegal in North Korea. One day he said, "We don't have any food, so I want to go to China to get some food and I will be back here in seven days." But he didn't come back. After that my mum left home.

JENNY BROCKIE: When you say your mum left home, where did she go?

ANDREW LEE: She said she wanted to go to my aunt's house because my uncle was a military officer at that moment, and so he went to another city but after that I don't have any information about her.

JENNY BROCKIE: You don't know where she went?

ANDREW LEE: I don't know.

JENNY BROCKIE: She just disappeared?

ANDREW LEE: Until now.

JENNY BROCKIE: And you were 12?

ANDREW LEE: Yes, when I was 12.

JENNY BROCKIE: What did you do? Where did you go?

ANDREW LEE: After that I ran out of home to go to my friend's house to get some food, but his situation was same as me. So he said that we have to go to outside to get some food, there were markets. So we went there, and the first time we begged some food from merchants or sellers, yeah, so.

JENNY BROCKIE: And this was during the famine in the 1990s?

ANDREW LEE: Yes, 1998 yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE: So a lot of people were starving - were needing food. How did you survive?

ANDREW LEE: That's a really difficult question. The first time we begged food for others but they don't give food any more, they didn't give any food, and so we stole something from merchants but we knew that stealing is really bad, but we had to do that.

JENNY BROCKIE: To survive?

ANDREW LEE: To survive.

JENNY BROCKIE: You were a group of boys about 12, same age?

ANDREW LEE: Well, no a 14, two were 14 and I was 12 and the rest of them were 11.

JENNY BROCKIE: And several of your friends died while they were on the streets?

ANDREW LEE: Yes - two of them. One of them he fought other groups of beggars, so he got seriously injuries, and so, yeah, he passed away in front of me. Yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE: And your father actually defected to South Korea where you both now live, but you still don't know about your mother?

ANDREW LEE: Yeah. We don't have any connection between mum, so my father lives, he lives in South Korea right now, with me. I met him in South Korea.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hyeonseo, you grew up in a middle-class family in North Korea. When did you start to realise that other North Koreans didn't have as much privilege as you had, weren't as lucky as you were?

HYEONSEO LEE, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR: Until the mid1990s. First my family was not poor and so I didn't see much problem, so I can’t see it exactly but in 1995 my mother brought home a letter from her sister, it was a letter of five families dying, starving and they were lying on the floor, waiting to die. So when my mum read for me, she don’t figure out I don't know any truth about North Koreans.

JENNY BROCKIE: So she was completely in the dark about what was going on with other families?


JENNY BROCKIE: Why was that? Is it because you mixed in a very limited, with a limited group of people?

HYEONSEO LEE: I didn't really see from outside, the problem, what they were eating, exactly, they were eating something bad stuff, but I don't know what they're eating because I didn't go to their family often.

JENNY BROCKIE: You went to a friend's house, though and you saw a little bit.

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes, one time. Before the letter, I went to a friend's home, for the lunch and she didn't give me for lunch, and whenever she come to our home, we gave her lunch but she didn't give it. I was pretty annoyed because I was hungry and then, "Why are you guys not giving me food?" She brought me to the kitchen and then she said it's because of this food, we can't give it. I didn't see that clearly. She opened the door a little bit, this much, and so I couldn't see the inside what was there clearly, still I don't know what was there, but I can feel that there's something strange.

JENNY BROCKIE: It wasn't like food?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes. But I didn't know why they were eating that, something, I was thought a little bit, but when my mum brought the letter I just completely figured it out because they were starving.

JENNY BROCKIE: What were you eating, Andrew? What were you eating?

ANDREW LEE: We ate, arrow root, we call chick pea, and we ate pine tree bark, and roots of vegetables, we eat many things - things like animals.

JENNY BROCKIE: And what did the two of you learn at school?

ANDREW LEE: Usually, I remembered when I was a freshman in elementary school, we learned how to give respect to, I mean, respect to leaders, our leaders, like Kim Jong-il, and we learned about his life, from young ages. He was great and he was always, we learn about his, how he is great, something like that.

JENNY BROCKIE: What else did you learn, though - Apart from that?

ANDREW LEE: For example, when he, Kim Yu Sung fought to Japanese, he made some bombs with pine tree... Not knowing exactly, but pine tree has some balls, and we call - he made a bomb with them, and also he made...

JENNY BROCKIE: Your talking all about Kim and this is interesting. I mean, I'm interested in other things at school. Did you learn maths, did you learn science, did you learn English? Did you read books?

ANDREW LEE: Yeah, we learned maths, but we didn't learn English, because English is the language of Americans, and North Korean people hate Americans, so they don't like English.

JENNY BROCKIE: Did you learn about literature? About other countries?

ANDREW LEE: No. We learn about the Korean language and maths and about also Kim's life and the music, and all about North Korea.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hyeonseo you're saying the same. Looking back how do you feel about your school years?

HYEONSEO LEE: As he said, you don't need to learn English because it is our enemy’s language, so you don't need to learn it in North Korea. And most of the time we learned about Kim's activities, his life or stories. We learned to get all the fake history from them.

JENNY BROCKIE: Is this relentless, all day, every day at a child?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes, every day. In Korea, the students go to the academy for learn more, like English or maths, something like that, but in North Korea, all I remember is at my school, we can't go home, we just stayed at school and then we just practice, you know, in North Korea we have a very popular maths game, we had a lot of exercise.

JENNY BROCKIE: We've got some footage of math games so I will show that to people, so they can get an idea of what it is like.


JENNY BROCKIE: How much of that were you doing?

HYEONSEO LEE: I did it all the time from elementary school, to, I don't remember, I did it when I was in High School, but until middle school, I did it.

JENNY BROCKIE: How many hours would you do, like a day?

HYEONSEO LEE: All the afternoons, until five, sometimes 6pm.


HYEONSEO LEE: Yes. Almost, and sometimes, you know, we, even we can't take a class, because we need to dig the ground, because the government told us the Americans will take our country, so we need to prepare for the worst or this time we are going to have a nuclear war, so we need as much as we can dig deeply, that's for better earth, so we need to hide under the ground.

JENNY BROCKIE: So you are digging trenches to hide in?


JENNY BROCKIE: When there's a war?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes, all the students, we did a few months, we can't take class, instead of school, we just dig ground. It was 1990 - 1994, or something like that.

JENNY BROCKIE: And let's have a look at the kind of news that people get in North Korea.


NEWS READER (Translation): Kwang Myung Sung – 3 satellite launch successful! On 10 December, the Kwang Myung Sung – 3 satellite was successfully sent into orbit by being carried on the Eunha rocket.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, did you trust the news?

ANDREW LEE: When I was in North Korea?


ANDREW LEE: Yes, of course I trusted because I didn't have many information to compare with other countries. I trusted that news, and so if I were in North Korea right now, so I would, so our country is a really good country, something like that.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hyeonseo, same for you?

HYEONSEO LEE: Of course, nobody is going to doubt about that. What the government says, that is all true and because for us, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il - they are like God. When I was in North Korea I thought they don't go bathroom, they don't smoke, they don't marry. I though he's really completely God. So what they say is we all believed. As we have no things to compare with other country, the only thing I can compare with China. Later I found the reason why I compare to China.

JENNY BROCKIE: And what did you think when you saw the footage of North Koreans, this is after you defected, when you saw the footage of North Koreans howling after the death of Kim Jong-il. Did that seem real? Do those pictures seem real to you or did they seem fake?

ANDREW LEE: When I was seven years old, Kim Il-sung passed away, 1994, at that time I went with my family, to his statue, and my mum was crying in front of his statue, but I didn't cry, because I was so young, but my mum pinched me, "You should cry, you have to cry". She forced me. But I tried to cry, but there is no tears - I made fake tears.

JENNY BROCKIE: The tears would not come.


JENNY BROCKIE: You both did that?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes. "I'm crying, mum, I'm really sad".

JENNY BROCKIE: You're not crying because you felt sad? Was there some sense in which you didn't relate to all of that? Did you think those tears were real, that those people had?

HYEONSEO LEE: Almost real, like 80 per cent were real, but I was, at that time, I was 14, when I was there, and then because I don't usually cry, so that didn't make me cry, that was made me so tired, and so that's why I didn't cry, maybe because I was so tired.

JENNY BROCKIE: I think people outside North Korea, when they saw those pictures were trying to make sense of it, trying to get a sense of whether the people were genuinely upset or whether it was all staged and you know, it wasn't real. I mean, when you saw that, what did you think?

HYEONSEO LEE: That was real, like, I am young, but I pretend I'm crying, because I'm scared if I don't cry, maybe someone will criticise me, but at Kim Jong-il's death, the percentage changed in his period. But still many people like, still 50 per cent of North Korean people are really crying.

JENNY BROCKIE: Did either of you ever think about questioning authority? When you lived in North Korea?

ANDREW LEE: No. No. I didn't have any question about the authority of the leaders because that's really dangerous. If I have that kind of question in my mind, but that's okay, but if I speak out, that's really a big problem.

JENNY BROCKIE: What happens to people who speak out?

ANDREW LEE: First I will captured by police, and then go down the police station and then they ask me about why do you think like that, it's a political crime, something like that. In North Korea, political crime is the biggest problem in North Korea that is a big problem.

HYEONSEO LEE: In North Korea, you can't call Kim Il Sung's name just like this, you usually put General or we have to put titles. We can't call their name directly or we going to be sent to political prison camps - all the family, not only me, so you can imagine.

ANDREW LEE: Also we can't have the same name. A friend of mine in North Korea, he has the same name as Kim Il-sung. The government said, "You have to change your name, that's really rude". That's a really funny thing.

HYEONSEO LEE: In North Korea, no-one has the same name. So I met some guys, they have the similar same name as Kim Sung Il, I was really shocked.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hyeonseo, you, like most North Korean defectors crossed the river into China. Now what would have happened to you if you had been caught?

HYEONSEO LEE: Oh it depends on your age, I was at that time in a school, and so they wouldn't have big problem, but if you are older or you are in the government, then that depends on your position, depends on it.

JENNY BROCKIE: You were 17?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes. I'm going to be sent for a short time, the labour, for prison, but not like serious in a political prison camp.

JENNY BROCKIE: But not if you are an adult?

HYEONSEO LEE: But now if I am sent back to North Korea, it's different. They will put me for a public execution. Yes.

JENNY BROCKIE: Public execution now, really? how do you know that?

HYEONSEO LEE: Because I am in South Korea, everybody knows that, so this is the difference. If I got caught in China or South Korea, they are all different reasons, yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, your father eventually got you out in 2002. Did you tell anyone you were planning to leave, any of those other boys that you were on the streets with?

ANDREW LEE: Yeah. 2002, October 19, 2002, a stranger came to my grandfather house, I met him, he had a letter and then written by my father and next day I went to the market to see my friends and I had to say a lie, because I couldn't say, "I'm leaving, I'm going to China". That's really dangerous because that means that I hate North Korea, that's a problem.

JENNY BROCKIE: Someone could tell on you and you could get arrested.

ANDREW LEE: Even though they are my friends, yeah, I couldn't say a lie. So, yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE: So you didn't tell them?

ANDREW LEE: I didn't tell them. This guy is my uncle, my auntie is really sick, so I have to see her, so I have to go to the city, and she is close to China, and so, yeah, that was my speak.

JENNY BROCKIE: You both got away?


JENNY BROCKIE: When were your eyes opened to the rest of the world, Andrew? What sort of things shocked you when you got out?

ANDREW LEE: I was afraid of, to escape, afraid of escaping North Korea, because I was brainwashed a lot, and so when I was in North Korea, North Korea is the most beautiful country, and it is a really strong, fierce country in the world.

JENNY BROCKIE: That is what you were told?

ANDREW LEE: Exactly.

JENNY BROCKIE: So you both live in South Korea now. What shocked you when you got to South Korea?

ANDREW LEE: It's kind of, here is an example - when I came to South Korea, I really want to buy a pencil, and so I went to the shop, and so I saw lots of pencils, but I couldn't choose that one. I couldn't choose one, because I tried everything, to write down, and what I'm saying is that, that's freedom


ANDREW LEE: Yes, because I can choose so many things. In North Korea, there's only one.

JENNY BROCKIE: And you also talked about electricity, that this was a big shock that you saw so many lights on?

ANDREW LEE: Yes, night life, yeah. When I came to South Korea, during the night, in the night time, it's like, really, really bright, in North Korea it's really dark. That was my first shock in South Korea.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hyeonseo, ten years later, you went back to get your mother and brother out. Now, you had crucial help in that, from an Australian man, and you were reunited with him earlier tonight here at SBS, let’s have a look at that.


JENNY BROCKIE: You look very happy. I want to hear a little bit about this story. Dick, how did you come to help Hyeonseo's family?

DICK STOLP: Just by chance, I was coming on - I'm a backpacker who hasn't grown up and I was travelling in a bus from China to Laos, and Hyeonseo was sitting behind me. We came to if first town and we said goodbyes, three or four days later I came back to the same town, which was a very small town, and she was there. It was really a transit town. I said to her, "Why are you still here?" It was a that time she told me her story, that she said to me, not her mother, she said, "I have friends who escaped from North Korea, and have been picked up by the Lao police for not having documents, because they were coming from North Korea, China, Lao, to Thailand, and that was the idea and then the South Korean Embassy, and then...

JENNY BROCKIE: She needed money?

DICK STOLP: She needed money, but also a bit of moral support. So hopefully that's what I was able to provide – the moral support.

JENNY BROCKIE: As well as moral support, you gave her $1,000, as well as the moral support, you needed that, Hyeonseo.

DICK STOLP: I don't know if it was $1,000. It was on sheep stations and it was something that she needed. And luckily I got some friends from Australia that I sometimes can put a hard word on, you know - if someone needs a hand.

JENNY BROCKIE: What affected you so much about her story?

DICK STOLP: That people were in jail and just needed to get out. They were trying to escape from a regime, from a country, that I don't know much about - you know.

JENNY BROCKIE: But you were touched?

DICK STOLP: I was touched, you know, I was touched by the story and I felt like she needed a hand. It wasn't just the money. It was also the support.

JENNY BROCKIE: How crucial was it, Hyeonseo, to getting your family out of North Korea, meeting this man?

HYEONSEO LEE: I can't imagine without his help what would happen later. At the time he was helping, I didn't realise exactly he was going to help me. From the beginning he said he was going to help me, but I don't know, this is in Laos, not in Korea, but he just went to the ATM with his credit card and he paid the money and then suddenly I just thought it's always nice, the weather is always nice there - blue sky, but I didn't see that the blue was really beautiful, because I always have trouble by myself, but because of his, something happy, suddenly I saw the sky was really beautiful, because thankful for this world.

JENNY BROCKIE: And that money got your mother and brother out of jail in Laos?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yeah. And the one thing is I really asked him, "Why are you helping me?" He said, "I'm not helping you, I'm helping the North Korean people". That I always keep inside me, still, the best part, he said.

DENNIS RODMAN: He wants a call from President Obama? He told me that, he said, "If you can Dennis, I don't want to do war, I don't want to do war.", he said that to me. He loves basketball. At the same time, I said, "Obama loves basketball". Let's start there.

JENNY BROCKIE: Ah yes, he's got it all worked out, the diplomat, Dennis Rodman, a former US basketball star of course and one of the few people who has met the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Sue Mi Terry, in New York, you're a North Korean analyst and used to work with the CIA. Things are pretty grim when everyone looks to Dennis Rodman for insights into the North Korean leader I think. How does America reliably know about Kim Jong-un?

SUE MI TERRY, FORMER CIA ANALYST: I'm afraid to say very little, to be honest with you. We call North Korea in the intelligence community - we call North Korea a hard target for a reason. It is one of the most difficult countries on earth to know. Particularly when it comes to its leadership, its regime intentions and in the top leader, Kim Jong-un, you know, it's a very difficult subject.

JENNY BROCKIE: Now, you have North Korean grandparents, is that right?

SUE MI TERRY: They did come from North Korea, yes - they passed away, but, yes.

JENNY BROCKIE: So you have a keen interest in this part of the world and in this country in particular?

SUE MI TERRY: Yes, absolutely and I'm also Korean-American and I came from South Korea, I moved to the US when I was 14 years old.

JENNY BROCKIE: As someone who worked for the CIA, I mean, US agencies have a history here of disagreeing and getting things wrong about North Korea, why? Why do they get so much wrong even between agencies?

SUE MI TERRY: As I told you, North Korea is one of the most difficult countries to know and the US intelligence community has 16 intelligence agencies, it’s not just one agency, and you know, because it's so hard to figure out, you have to use whatever information you have, it's like putting together pieces of a puzzle, but a lot of pieces are missing, and you are trying to do your best. It's hard to know for sure, particularly when it comes to the leadership, as I said.

JENNY BROCKIE: Kim Jong-un has threatened nuclear strikes of course against South Korea and the US. How seriously do you view those threats?

SUE MI TERRY: Those threats I don't take so seriously. I don't think North Korea is so subtle, they're not irrational or all that crazy, even though they appear to be. They are not suicidal. They know when they do that it will be the end of the regime, and if, the most important thing for the regime is survival. I don't take that threat seriously, but I am worried about other issues, like proliferation.

JENNY BROCKIE: Can you explain more why you're worried about that?

SUE MI TERRY: North Korea is known to be a serial proliferator, they will almost sell anything for money. They are ostensibly engaged in all kind of illicit activities, they have proliferated to other countries of concern, such as Syria, Iran, Myanmar. They have a history of doing that and this is big concern for Washington.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrei Lankov in Seoul, you lived in North Korea, what do you make of Kim Jong-un and his threats?

ANDREI LANKOV, KOOKMIN UNIVERSITY: Well, I basically have to repeat what has been just said. He is just not suicidal. He understands perfectly well, that if you start a war, he and pretty much everybody whom he happens to know, will be dead within roughly 25 minutes. He knows it perfectly well. They have just two nuclear devices, enough to kill a few ten thousand people, but not nearly enough to damage the United States or even South Korea to any significant extent.

They can tell their people that everyone is afraid of North Korea, very popular form of propaganda, "We are great, we are powerful everybody is afraid of us", but they understand perfectly well, that yes, they are capable of creating problems if they are attacked, but if they are attacked, they have no chances. They are not suicidal. He loves pizza, he loves chats with Mr Rodman, he loves basketball, maybe not playing, he's seriously overweight. He's just a smart cynical guy, like his father used to be, his grandfather, they love women, expensive cars and they are not going to surrender it. Why do you think he's suicidal?

JENNY BROCKIE: So all talk?

ANDREI LANKOV: It's just a normal part - we have heard this many, many times. When he says this, he is not going to follow a armistice agreement, declaring war with the United States – well they have declared war on the United States five times - in the recent 15 years or so. Nobody in Washington pays attention. So, well, should we take it seriously? Of course not.

It was the usual part, usual strategy - create attention, make sure that everybody remembers that you exist, otherwise no-one would pay attention to this tiny country with almost no economy to speak of and then start negotiations and try to squeeze aid and concessions on the outside world. Nothing special. Usual tactics. This time he was unusually loud and a bit lucky, because nothing else was happening worldwide, and so the world media rushed to Seoul and got exaggerated all this crisis, completely out of proportion.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrei, can I just ask you, though, can I just ask you, though, I mean, given how little we know about him and that he does have nuclear capabilities, is it dangerous to ignore him?

ANDREI LANKOV: It's not dangerous to ignore him. What do you mean by not knowing much about him? We know he studied in Switzerland, he used to love pizza, he was relatively, not especially brilliant student, and what else do we need? He is not a zealot, because usually people tend to look at North Korea, as a fundamentalist regime, bad guys who are incomprehensible, we know nothing about them, they believe in crazy ideas, they can do whichever.

Problem is - well, I'm not talking about middle east, I don't know much about middle east, but with North Korea it is quite clear, if you look at their ideology it's not just about committing suicide for the sake of the great religion, no it's his official promises to his people that he is building a powerful, mighty and prosperous, affluent country, and there is nothing about destroying the world, it's not a religion, their ideology is not a religion.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, I'd like to ask Andrew O'Neil here, your reaction, you are looking very sceptically as you are listening. What do you think? You have a background in international security analysis. What do you any about the threats?

ANDREW O’NEIL, GRIFFITH UNIVERSITY: Well, I don't think we know very much about Kim Jong-un. We know factual evidence that this is a dynastic succession - we know that the new leader is around 30 years of age, he is a four-star general, has been promoted to a four star general, he clearly has, you know, no, or very little experience in terms of managing a state, let alone a state with a nuclear weapons capability locked in more tall confrontation with the United States and South Korea, and so the other issue is we don't know the role of the military in relation to Kim Jong-un. We don't know how, the extent to which he's operating autonomously from the military. We don't know the power of the military in terms of their influence over the leader.

You'd have to assume being of that age, being of the tender age of 30, that he's clearly, he's almost certainly struggling to stamp his authority on the state, particularly when you take into account the supreme role of the military in North Korea. And so we don't know very much about Kim Jong-un.

JENNY BROCKIE: Where does that leave you thinking about how much of a threat he represents and North Korea represents?

ANDREW O’NEIL: Well, in terms of what we know about motivations, it's very little. I mean, we know that North Korea is striving for national survival - we know that it's striving, as Andrei said to extract concessions from neighbours, particularly South Korea, in the form of aid and also China increasingly as well, but in terms of what we know about North Korea, it's more about capabilities than motivations. That was the point that Sue Mi made before, it is extremely hard intelligence gathering. A lot is guess work when you can't have US agencies agreeing on a national intelligence estimate on what North Korea has let alone its intentions, we know this is probably the toughest intelligence collection target in the world.

JENNY BROCKIE: Sue Mi, you said you can't get agents in there, is that right?

SUE MI TERRY: Your previous speakers were just talking about how isolated and how indoctrinated the country is. Can you imagine putting CIA agents inside that country? Even just to travel internally in North Korea, you have to have a travel permit. They are the most watched people on earth. There is no way to put people in there. The only thing which can do is to try to approach North Koreans when they are outside of the country but then they are the most trained people. They only move in groups. It's almost impossible to separate them. If you do convert them, they are middle level officials, what do they really know about the top leadership's intentions. That is why it is really hard.

JENNY BROCKIE: Are you two worried when you hear these threats coming from North Korea, how do you feel about them? We have a few South Koreans in our audience too I'm interested in hearing from.

ANDREW LEE: It's political rhetoric. No.

JENNY BROCKIE: You don't take it seriously?


JENNY BROCKIE: No. What about other people here? Do you take it seriously?

WOMAN: I find that the political rhetoric may be amusing at times, but although we do assure ourselves saying that they wouldn't shoot us using the nuclear weapons because of mutually assured destruction, small attacks like the 2010 island attack, and also Kim Il-Sung's birthday is coming up and I think it was the Unar3 missile they plan to test on Kim Il-Sung’s birthday as a commemoration. I think those sorts of attacks shouldn't be taken lightly.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, can you talk us through the nuclear capability that we think they might have, I stress a lot of this is guess work. Can you talk us through that? We've got a picture here of the different missiles.

ANDREW O’NEIL: That's what we know largely about North Korea's missile ranges. I mean the proven missile ranges are the short range Scud and also the medium range Nodong which can cover all of South Korea and Japan and also a part of China as well. They have tested those systems. We know they exist, we know they have those missiles.

JENNY BROCKIE: And can attach a nuclear warhead to them?

ANDREW O’NEIL: We don't know that for sure, and again, this goes back to the earlier points about the defence intelligence agency, which has made it clear in 2005 that its estimate is that North Korea has the capability to do that. US experts like David Albright have said that North Korea is in a position to do that now, others disagree. There is not consensus on this. What there is consensus on though is that the North Koreans are working hard towards a longer range capability. The missile up there on the screen is theoretically capable of striking Guam. We know the North Koreans, for example had their first successful satellite test last year. The newsreader was up there, the satellite, and once the country can launch a satellite into orbit, we know it has the capability to go to the next level, getting a missile capable of travelling much intercontinental distances.

What we don't know is the stage at which North Korea is at in terms of missile development program that it's undertaken but we do know historically it's made enormous strides in missile capabilities in short spaces of time. On the nuclear front, we also know that the North Koreans have opened up another front in their program and that is the highly enriched uranium front. They have tested in plutonium. We don't know how developed they are in the highly enriched uranium program. That is of a real concern. If they manage to go down that road and are successful, we could be looking at a scenario like Pakistan, which is put a lot of effort into ram ping up the numbers of warheads they have.

JENNY BROCKIE: Sue, they reportedly moved two missiles away from the east coast today or in the last couple of days. What do you make of that? What do you make of this recent move that's being interpreted as a backing off or a bit of brinksmanship?

SUE MI TERRY: I would say not yet. Let's not get too confident about that. That's a possibility, and they've been doing the offensive move, it's very much possible they are taking it easier a little bit to get back into, you know, being part of the normal cycle of this offensive and then trying to relax, and waiting later. You know, we had a couple of times last time there was a missile launch they were dismantling it and went off with it. They love to move these things around, playing the "move the missile" game, they are quite good at it. I wouldn't relax too much about it and be comfortable that you know, the offensive actions are, the stage is over yet. I am not so comfortable yet, these provocative actions are over.

JENNY BROCKIE: David, you have family in South Korea, what do you think, are you worried?

DAVID CHUN: Well, I have a brother who lives in South Korea and his family. I don't think he's particularly worried just because he's really busy, he works a lot. You can't stop a day in Korea and think about North Korea without losing your job or thinking about your family and the money you have to earn to keep up the quality of life.

JENNY BROCKIE: Ben, what about you? I'm keen to get a sense of this because we hear all this bellicose language and threats in other countries in the world. I'm interested in the way South Koreans respond to that?

BEN LEE: I think it's a respond to David's brother. You hear these threats quite often, the same song played over and over again. You can't afford to take the day off and panic "Are they going to bomb us?" You have to get on with your daily life, it is what it is.

JENNY BROCKIE: Jason, what about you?

JASON KOH, EDITOR, KOREAN TIMES: Yes, I don’t feel any threat or I've been to North Korea 2007 and I found Chinese influence is so huge, and I don't see any kind of war breaking out and we have to, when it comes to dealing with North Korea, we have to be careful about the humiliation, the policy of North Korea is open humiliation already. Now we are looking around, the foreign policy, I think you see, North Korea's approach to US government, the example of repeat of the veteran failure, and so they have to be very careful about that.

JENNY BROCKIE: Tonight we are trying to unravel some of the mystery surrounding North Korea and work out how much of a threat is posed to the rest of the world. Sue, if North Korea doesn't launch nuclear weapons, what else could it do?

SUE MI TERRY: I just think that if they have ignored and if things don’t progress, let's say a couple of months, maybe six months, down the road, they can always do something that's limited and controlled and calculated provocation, like in 2010, like the Cheonan episode where North Koreans sank a South Korean vessel. They didn't expect to get caught then, so they can do something to raise the bar and act provocatively without launching a nuclear attack.

JENNY BROCKIE: What could the consequences of something like that be?

SUE MI TERRY: Well, thus far, history has proven that there are no real consequences for North Korean provocation. For decades North Koreans did things that are far worse, multiple assassination attempts against the South Korean President that killed the President's mother and remember when the North Koreans blew up a civilian airliner killing 115 people on board. You know, the Myanmar bombing that ended up killing half of the South Korean Cabinet, and what was the response from the South Korean Government and Washington? Not much. Even in 2010, under the so-called Presidency, in the after math of Cheonan the South Koreans didn't really retaliate. I think from North Korean perspective, there are no consequences to these actions.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrei, what do you any? Are skirmishes or attacks in the region possible and is there a possibility of escalation through that?

ANDREI LANKOV: I again, well, I have to agree with something which has been said, our guests from New York. Problem is however, in this case, I have to politely disagree. It’s true that historically, as I just said, in one conversation today, the South Korean military was, has been the most Christian military in the world - when they were slapped, when they had their cheek slapped, they just another cheek, historically they didn't react to North Korean provocation.

However, things changed, changed around the island to the extent the South Korean military, and the South Korean politicians and it is clear now South Koreans are determined - if they are attacked by the North Koreans they will strike back and they are going to do very powerful, very mighty counter strikes. And probably this is not a good news, because it first time indicates, it creates some potential for escalation, because if they strike back, North Korea will probably reply with a counter strike and so on and so on and so on.

So this change of mood is sort of dangerous and there is some probability of escalation and I have to agree that if they don't get what they expect to get, which means essentially some political concessions but largely money and free food, if they don't get it until maybe the end of this year, or maybe earlier, they are highly likely to do some kind of low level, small scale, controllable provocation, targeting this time, not the Americans but the South Koreans. This is what they have done in the past. It sometimes has worked in the past.

SUE MI TERRY: Can I add a little bit?


SUE MI TERRY: I want to agree with Professor Andrei Lankov, in that after the episode in 2010, the mentality of the South Korean people has changed and the South Korean Government will respond, that is for sure - I think the public demands that. I just don't think it will be a massive retaliation, because the South Korean Government is keenly aware, they don't want to escalate it and things to get out of control so I think it will be much more thought out and calculated, but of course there's always room for things, for people to miscalculate.

JENNY BROCKIE: Rory Medcalf, you are a security analyst and worked with the Office of National Assessment – what do you make of this and what does this mean for Australia and the region?

RORY MEDCALF, LOWY INSTITUTE: Well I think we can't afford to be too relaxed about North Korea. I agree there won't be a nuclear war tomorrow and I agree the media generally played a damaging role on that issue in the last few months, giving oxygen to Kim Jong-un, but there is a risk and that is because North Korea, with all these military tensions and of course with the awful human rights situation that we've heard about, is right in the middle of the region that's supposedly the economic dynamic part of the world, the Asian century, the China, there's Japan, South Korea and all the other countries of Asia, vital to Australia's future, economy, and everyone's economic wellbeing, but there is this big security uncertainty in the middle of all of that and there is a risk of conflict which could escalate, which could drag in other countries and really make the Asian century very different to what our Prime Minister's been talking about.

JENNY BROCKIE: So what should we do about it?

RORY MEDCALF: Well, Australia on its own can't do a hell of a lot. But I do think it is quite right for the Government to be concerned about it, for Australia to add its voice to others in the international community, putting pressure on North Korea about its nuclear weapons, putting pressure on North Korea about its behaviour and frankly, also, putting pressure on China, which we haven't mentioned so far, this evening, which I any is the only country that has any real leverage with North Korea.

JENNY BROCKIE: And critical in terms of potential leverage, yes.

RORY MEDCALF: Perhaps critical, yes. I know the Chinese always say they have less leverage than we think they have. There is a debate about this within China, but China can do more than it has been doing.

JENNY BROCKIE: Mack Williams, you used to be Australia's ambassador to South Korea. What do you think listening to this? I know you favour closer ties with North Korea?

MACK WILLIAMS, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO SOUTH KOREA: It's a hellishly complex situation and I was concerned with a lot of the rhetoric the last couple of weeks, which is simplistic to how you solve it. I have to politely disagree with Andrei, I don't think it's a matter of 25 minutes to oblivion for North Korea. That is not in the realm of things. The real difficulty for us is that there is no alternative but to do some negotiation for this. History has also shown us that sanctions have not worked very well.

JENNY BROCKIE: We have some of the toughest sanctions in the world.

MACK WILLIAMS: We can do a lot of breast beating about that and that doesn't necessarily get us anywhere I don’t think. One has to find a way to get North Korea back into the system, and further we cut them out of the system, the more difficult I will be to get them back. Sometimes we can play a role that we don't have to necessarily be as slavish to the alliance on some of these things. Australia has the capability of flexibility sometimes, not to be an intermediary, but go in and do some things, while all these other things are going on, the British and Americans have been working actively inside North Korea on education and other issues that we've been reluctant in Australia to do that and I think that's a great pity.

JENNY BROCKIE: You'd like to see more effort?

MACK WILLIAMS: Negotiation is the only way out. You're not going to bomb Pyongyang.

JENNY BROCKIE: Can you negotiate with North Korea though?

MACK WILLIAMS: Somehow, eventually you just have to find some way to do it.

RORY MEDCALF: Can I ask you - do you think that China has applied the sanctions as effectively as it should, surely there's untested territory there?

MACK WILLIAMS: I'm reminded very much my counterpart in Seoul at the time became a major American negotiator and his comments, was to me, that "China can do more than it does, but nothing like what we would like them to do".

RORY MEDCALF: It all counts. I don't think we're there yet.

JENNY BROCKIE: Unfortunately, we're really tight for time. We will have to wrap up. Hyeonseo, I understand your mother and brother sometimes want to go back, or have wanted to go back to North Korea?



HYEONSEO LEE: Because my mum, pretty old. She's over 50, so she spent entire her life in North Korea, even though it’s bad, it doesn't matter, she has all relatives in North Korea or friends there, she just missed home town.

JENNY BROCKIE: She misses where her life was?


JENNY BROCKIE: And your brother tried to go back?

HYEONSEO LEE: Yes, my brother came to Korea first time in one year, he went to China, he said, "I'm going to see North Korea near the border".

JENNY BROCKIE: And you talked him out of it.

HYEONSEO LEE: I said, "You can come back in one week". In one week, he called me and said, "I want to go back to, I can't ..." in front of me, like, my home town, I want to really, like, run away into North Korea. I was really stunned at that time. I did all my best.

JENNY BROCKIE: You talked him out of it?

HYEONSEO LEE: To get to him, to take on the aeroplane to come back to South Korea.

JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, just quickly, do you think you will find your mum?

ANDREW LEE: Hopefully, don’t know. We don't have any connections. I hope that she would be live, something somewhere in North Korea, so yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE: Good luck. We hope you find her. Thank you very much for joining us tonight. Thank you to all our guests via satellite and here, too, it's been a grease discussion. We have to wrap it up. You can keep talking online. Go to our website, Twitter or Insight's Facebook page.