Jung-hoon Lee and Holli Semetko, director of the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning

Despite the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong that killed two soldiers and two civilians, North Korea is not ready to escalate into a full-scale war, said Jung-hoon Lee, professor of international relations at Yonsei University‘s Graduate School of International Studies.

Yonsei University is the oldest private university in Korea. It was started in 1885 by Christian missionaries including Horace G. Underwood, the great-grandfather of Peter Underwood, Georgia‘s trade representative in Korea.

While North Korea wants the international community to believe that the country is on the brink of war with South Korea, its economy is actually unable to sustain a war that might also threaten the leadership of North Korea, Dr. Lee said.

“North Korea’s interest is not war; North Korea’s interest is regime survival,” he said.

Speaking at Emory University at a Nov. 30 lecture hosted by the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, an organization that works to bring distinguished international guests to Atlanta, Dr. Lee discussed the reasons behind North Korea’s belligerence, which even in the face of retaliation by South Korea would not escalate into a full-scale war.

“It may escalate. I can’t tell you where the ceiling is … but there is a point where North Korea will stop,” he said.

Dr. Lee, who serves as an adviser to South Korea’s National Security Council, gave a number of possible reasons for the attack.

He said that North Korea may be trying to polarize the South Korean government or create enough tension to renegotiate the “Northern Limit Line,” the long-disputed boundary in the Yellow Sea between the two countries.

Dr. Lee also said that while no one outside of the North Korean government can be sure of the reasons for this attack, these attacks might merely be an attempt to underscore its strength as a military state despite its poor economy. The international community has blamed North Korea for a torpedo attack in April that sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. 

And he cited a North Korean tradition of belligerence as a sign that a succession in power is to take place. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il has indicated that his son, Kim Jong Un, is to succeed him.  

These attacks may even be some form of initiation or test for a new leader, he said, pointing to Kim Jong Un’s promotion in September to a four-star general despite his lack of military experience.

Whatever North Korea’s rationale for the attack, Dr. Lee was certain that after years of negotiations, including the six-party talks that failed to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the time for diplomacy was over.

“So the question is: has diplomacy, has the whole effort, been exhausted? My answer is yes,” he said.

For more information on Dr. Lee or Yonsei University, visit www.yonsei.ac.kr/eng or to view his entire speech, visit  http://halleinstitute.emory.edu/Speaker%20Series/Halle%20Speakers/Lee.html