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Sunday, April 14, 2013
Of late, North Korea has visibly ratcheted up its bellicosity toward South Korea, Japan and the United States.
It has unilaterally rescinded all of the treaties, commerce pacts and artistic exchange contracts in existence since 1953; revived construction of a plutonium production reactor that violates the 2007 six-nation agreement; continued with the ambitious missile production program, successfully launched a space vehicle and, most recently, barred South Korea’s access to Kae Sung, the site of industrial and commercial collaboration between the two Koreas. In addition, it has warned the foreign embassies in the North and foreign investors in the South to leave for safety considerations and is threatening to launch two missiles soon.
While North Korea’s rhetoric of belligerence has been a good part of its foreign policy since 1948, this time we have a good reason to be more than simply wary. It is indeed a gravely dangerous time with an imminent possibility of a major outbreak.
To be sure, both before and after the Korean War of 1950-53, there have been a number of skirmishes between North Korea and mostly the three nations of South Korea, Japan and the U.S., including the sanguinary confrontation in the demilitarized zone where several American soldiers were axed to death by North Korean counterparts, an attempt to assassinate the South Korean president by digging an underground path to the Blue House (the counterpart of the White House); sinking of a South Korean ship, Cheon-An, killing more than 40 crew members; and bombardment of Yeong Pyeong, an island south of the DMZ that killed and wounded several civilians.
Even so, at least during the period of its founder Kim Il-sung’s regime, 1948-94, there was a degree of domestic tranquility, as it were, within the country under the deified “Supreme Leader’s” absolute autocracy.
Similarly, when the heir apparent, Kim Jong-il, ascended to the throne in 1994, he wasted no time consolidating the base of his support with a set of brutal measures and public hangings largely aimed at the potential sources of military coup d’etat. In a country where millions perished owing to malnutrition and starvation, the younger Kim found it necessary to divert hostile domestic stares to the game of brinkmanship he played with foreign adversaries.
He was largely successful in securing the base of his political power, especially with the help of his sister, Kim Kyong-hui, a four-star general and an important central figure in the country’s Communist Party, and her husband, Jang Suk-taek, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and in charge of five key industrial and manufacturing groups.
Nevertheless, Kim Jong-il continued to be on the lam from his own people as a way of optimizing his political viability. Hence his continual truculence toward South Korea. However, his voluble rhetoric was just that, no more. He clearly understood the ultimate outcome of a preemptive strike that would have been tantamount to suicide.
Now comes Kim Jong-un, believed to be approximately 30 years old, who rose to his father’s position only two years ago after a tempestuous process of succession that eliminated his two older brothers.
Kim Jong-un is an inexperienced “import” from Switzerland, where he was pursuing a course of study under an assumed name. Most westernized among his family members, he is clearly a myopic neophyte, noted for his epicurean and hedonistic life who could easily be dethroned, were it not for the powerful support from his aunt Kim Kyong-hui and uncle Jang Suk-taek, who himself long had fancied the possibility of succeeding Kim Jong-il upon his death. Some believe these two are less interested in supporting than manipulating the present fledgling leader to their own political advantage.
Here lies the reason to view the callow leader’s threats as more than rhetoric. The extremely precarious nature of his power base within the leadership echelon renders his moves much more erratic and unpredictable. We have reason to believe that the number of opportunists within the military is on the increase. And with it, his uncle’s supportive position may quickly prove to be a key seditious role against him in the end.
Given the mercurial nature of the present status of his power and the usual rule of a totalitarian regime that leaves its leader with only a binary choice of life or death, Kim Jong-un appears more than quixotic, indeed demented, maniacal, desperately frenzied with his survival instinct.
This explains China’s unprecedented vote to join the U.N. Security Council’s unanimous resolution for a heightened economic sanction against North Korea. Never has North Korea been so blatantly inattentive to China’s instruction despite the ideological symmetry between the two and the former’s almost total dependence on the latter for the nation’s energy, defense and commerce. Thus, China’s move reflects its public expression of concern for the first time, a concern based on a close reading of the state of Kim’s mind.
Now Russia has joined the chorus of concern.
What is to be done?
South Korea has declared DEFCON-2, the penultimate step before the declaration of a war. The United States is shifting a guided-missile destroyer in the Pacific to waters off the Korean peninsula, has sent to South Korea F-22 stealth fighter jets and B-2 stealth bombers, and is moving a warship closer to the North Korean coastline. In addition, it is also sending a sea-based radar platform and plans to deploy a sophisticated anti-missile defense system to Guam. Adm. Sam Locklear, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said that the United States is ready to respond and is capable of intercepting North Korea’s missiles.
These moves will indubitably drive home the ultimate suicidal nature of the move Kim is threatening to make, which is tantamount to a declaration of war.
At the same time, however, unorthodox as it may sound, we must do all we can to leave open the avenues of dialogue, especially with a view to assuring Kim of the stability of his power. A violent confrontation at this time would be a disaster of major proportion for all concerned. In addition, the possibility of implosion in North Korea would be more than a personal tragedy for Kim himself. It would cause political and economic tsunamis for both China and South Korea and ultimately have far-reaching economic and political impact for Japan and the United States as well.
How do we convince Kim of his political viability?
First, it is of utmost importance that we send an unambiguous message to Kim in person that the joint U.S.-South Korea moves in progress represent a purely defensive tactic derived from our view of the gravity of the situation. This we must do with a view to emphasizing in the most positive terms the seriousness with which Kim’s threat is viewed.
Doing so would serve to strengthen his face-saving gestures internally without suggesting a compromising position of our defensive/offensive readiness on our part.
Furthermore, the stern message about our military preparedness must be simultaneously accompanied by an incremental and persistent series of strategic efforts designed to open economic and cultural channels of commerce, again with a view to improving the quality of life of the people of North Korea and increasing Kim’s credible domestic standing.
To be sure, all this represents a Band-Aid measure to prevent a war. Wars often do not occur based on a rational calculus but as a result of a miscalculation about an otherwise inconsequentially trivial incident. The assassination of one relatively unimportant archduke of Austria-Este triggered a world war. It is my belief that we are now at a juncture where a small, even unintended encounter could easily ignite an unmanageable series of disastrous confrontations, ultimately resulting in an escalation into major warfare that, according to one recent intelligence estimate, would last only 18 minutes with the kinds of arsenals available.
The first and most urgent task then is to prevent such tragedy. Then, and only then, should we look for a long-term solution to the problems that have besieged the peninsula for so long.
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