[Outlook] Pyongyang’s power play

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[Outlook] Pyongyang’s power play

Let’s time-travel to 40 years ago in North Korea, when it was ruled by Kim Il Sung. On Jan. 21, 1968, a band of armed North Korean guerillas got within 500 meters of the main gate of the Blue House. Two days later, the North captured the U.S.S. Pueblo and its 83 crew members in waters off Wonsan. On Oct. 30, 120 armed North Korean spies infiltrated Uljin and Samcheok on the east coast. These ventures were led by soldiers who used to be partisans and ended up positioned in high posts in the political party and the government. That is the origin of the North’s “military-first” policy.

The hard-line policy of those former adventurists failed. Kim Il Sung held them accountable and purged them. Then, international politics changed drastically, in a way that would work fine for Kim. The Richard Nixon administration, which took office in 1969, opened an era of detente through Ping-Pong Diplomacy. On July 4, 1972, South and North Korea issued a Joint Communique. By purging the first generation of partisans, an obstacle to appointing Kim Jong-il as his father’s successor was removed.

Kim Jong-il’s rule is also dependent on military-first politics. The military prioritizes the security of the regime over the economy. It needs nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. There are various opinions about the reason for North Korea’s latest provocations, such as the opening and closing of the route to Kaesong and the announcement of its plans to launch a long-range missile in April. Some of the aggression is aimed at taming the Lee Myung-bak administration; others say it is to pressure the Barack Obama administration into holding negotiations with Pyongyang.

But none of these explanations are good enough. Some suggest another opinion, one that takes into consideration the current situation inside the North Korean regime. This theory is worth paying attention to.

Whether Kim Jong-il successfully muddles through with a crisis management system that relies on the military is directly related to how power will be handed over to his successor. The key question is whether he will hand over power to one of his sons after successfully fumbling through with military-first politics, just as his own father did. However, whichever way he chooses, the military will never give up its obsession with nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim must also know that in order to sustain his regime, it is much better to arm his state with these weapons than to give them up in return for aid from the outside that may turn out to be a Trojan horse.

Since North Korea conducted missile and nuclear weapons tests in 2006, the means available to the U.S. with which to denuclearize the North have become extremely limited. The U.S. stance on the nuclear situation in the North has retreated to this: “North Korea has nuclear weapons but the United States will not accept it.” U.S. officials can say a hundred times that they won’t tolerate a nuclear North Korea, but their words won’t be persuasive.

If North Korea succeeds in launching a satellite next month that demonstrates long-range ballistic missile technology, the argument for a pre-emptive attack on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities will become meaningless. Even if United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 is enhanced, its efficacy is doubtful. Some will maintain we should participate in the U.S. missile defense system, but the argument will not go far because of the possible burden on Korea?China relations.

We do not have the luxury of clinging to a minor issue like the Kaesong Industrial Complex. We need to consider Kaesong and tourism at Mount Kumgang within a bigger framework. There is no time to waste discussing who is to blame for North Korea’s weapons development. Whether the U.S. and the international community accept it or not, if North Korea becomes a nuclear state and develops the technology to launch ballistic missiles anytime it wants, the structure of inter-Korean relations will change completely. A strategy of waiting only wastes time.

For the Obama administration, there seems no other way than to have high-level talks with the North and to push or entice Pyongyang to implement at least the three-step denuclearization process agreed to in the six-party talks. There is a possibility that the United States will be satisfied with nonproliferation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

The U.S. often writes in its official documents that North Korea is a nuclear state, and then steps back if South Korea resists. It is becoming an irreversible fact that North Korea is indeed a nuclear state. U.S. intelligence authorities are slowly leaning toward accepting the story that the missile North Korea plans to launch is a satellite.

We believe North Korea’s weapons development will isolate it further. But if the U.S. takes a realistic stance without giving any notice, we may be pushed into a corner regarding North Korea and we may experience difficulties from having a different stance from the United States. Restoring South?North Korean relations is the right way to be freed from these worries.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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