UPenn Expert Weighs in on North Korea

Staff Writer

On Tuesday September 19, Frank Plantan Ph. D., visited the campus to give a lecture on United States relations with North Korea.

Plantan teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the Co-Director of the International Relations Program there. He is also the honorary consul-general of Republic of Korea for Pennsylvania. The event titled “The North Korean Conundrum for U.S. and Asia” was cosponsored by the Asian studies, history and political science departments.

The lecture comes weeks after North Korea’s successful missile launch over Japan.

Plantan began his lecture by dissecting some of the Americans feeling about the Korean conflict. He revealed that 16 percent of American identify North Korea as their “greatest enemy,” according to a recent Gallup poll.

It was also revealed that an overwhelming number of Americans would support an all-out assault on North Korea. Plantan, who first visited Seoul in 1975 as an undergrad, listed 4 policy options diplomatic engagement, isolation, continued threats and direct military action.

He made it very clear that direct military action would be the least advantageous.

Plantan said an invasion of North Korea would not be like Iraq. “If you invade North Korea, you’re in for a fight,” Plantan said.

If direct military actions are taken, then the very first victims would be innocent South Koreans. Seoul lies just 35 miles from the DMZ, well within reach of North Korean artillery fire.

Roughly 50 percent of the South Korean population lives in Seoul; and with a population density of 27,000 people per square mile, a North Korean counter attack would be catastrophic.

Plantan warned those who equate the Korea’s to that of Cold War era East and West Germany. South Korea is used to incidents and provocations by the North.

South Koreans likes the status quo and are not interested in reunification. Plantan also cited cases of mistreatment of North Korean defectors at the hands of South Koreans. Many defectors are treated like second class citizens and some end up defecting back to the North.

Photo courtesy of The University of Pennsylvania
FRANK PLANTAN, PhD. currently serves as the Co-Director of U-Penn’s International Relations Program.

Sanctions have done little to cripple the North Korean economy which has maintained 1 percent growth over the past three years.   Plantan still supports sanctions. “Sanctions have not toppled dictatorships but it brings them to the table,” Plantan said.

Which brings us to China. Often people ask why can’t China rein in North Korea. Chairman Moa Zedong once said China’s relationship with the People’s Democratic Republic was “close as lips and teeth.” Despite the fact that 90 percent of North Korea’s trade goes China this is no longer the case. In 2013, Kim Jong Un executed his Uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was supportive of Chinese policies that involved normalizing the region.

North Korean historians have surprisingly diminished China’s role in the Korean War, where North Korea benefitted tremendously. The opening of the “Friendship” New Yalu River Bridge that connects Dandong to Sinuiju, which cost China roughly $350 million, has been postponed indefinitely.

On the subject of nuclear conflict, Plantan posed this question to the audience, “Are we willing to give up Los Angeles or Chicago for South Korea?”

Debris from recovered missiles showed that the technology going into the missiles became more sophisticated with every launch.

The secret ingredient behind North Korea’s recent launch was unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, or UDMH for short.  UDMH has been dubbed the “devils venom” by Russians, known for its extreme volatility. A new report predicts that North Korea will be able to launch ICBM’s as early as 2018.

Plantan stressed diplomacy above all else. He advised South Korea to continue their civil defense drills to show that they take the threats of their Northern neighbor seriously.

Possible solutions he cited include building an embassy in Pyongyang and opening trade in exchange for rolling back their nuclear program. While China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States have different views of leveraging conflict, the only consensus reached is that the Korean Peninsula must be free of nuclear bombs.


  • Frank Plantan says:

    Thanks for the nice article, but one small correction, I teach in the International Relations Program, not Political Science. Loved the University of Scranton too!

    • Catherine Bombard says:

      Hi Dr. Plantan,
      Glad you like the article! I’ll make that change right now.

      Catherine Bombard, Editor in Chief

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