[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-il’s dangerous choiceWhenever the North Korean regime prepares to announce a successor, it commits a provocative act of violence against the South. The 1976 Panmunjom ax murder incident (in which North Korean guards attacked and killed two American officers) was a prelude to the Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong-il succession.
With the incident, North Korea tried to heighten the tension on the Korean Peninsula and reinforce support both within the regime and among the public through rumors of an attack from the South. At the time, it craftily manipulated the political dynamics of neighboring countries. With the nightmare of the Vietnam War over in April 1975, an antiwar atmosphere prevailed in the U.S. and China was devastated by the Tangshan earthquake, which took some 300,000 lives.
Now North Korea is working on the succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. The unrest caused by the father’s failing health and the instability of the succession process has been aggravated by the disastrous failure of recent currency reforms. The U.S. does not want another war without finishing its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq first. China is fully immersed in its preparations for the Expo 2010 Shanghai. South Korea will fall into World Cup fever right after the regional elections are over in June. In addition, the G-20 Summit meeting will be held in Seoul in the fall. And North Korea may have fired a torpedo right into the middle of this mess.
The Cheonan tragedy will go down in history as a major turning point in the history of the two Koreas. North Korea faces a crossroad in determining its fate. One path is the “soft track” - to return to the six-party talks, give up its nuclear weapons and reform and open its economy. The other is the “hard track” - to refuse the six-party talks, insist on keeping its nuclear program and continue with brinkmanship at least until 2012.
That year, too, will be decisive in many ways. North Korea has said it will become a “superpower” by then. Kim Jong-il will celebrate his 70th birthday. Kim Jong-un will turn 30, and it will be the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. There will also be elections or other forms of leadership shift in the U.S., China, Russia and South Korea. North Korea’s hard track will call for it to provoke South Korea and up the ante on its nuclear program until 2012, when negotiations begin with new leaders. By then, the subject of negotiation on the table will have changed from nuclear renunciation to nuclear disarmament.
Witnessing the Cheonan incident, it seems that North Korea has ultimately chosen the hard track. The Sunshine Policy of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, which was implemented with the hope that Pyongyang would choose the soft track, seems to have failed. North Korea deceived South Korea and international society even during the summit meetings, when it continued to develop nuclear weapons.
It turns out that the liberal administrations were naive in their calculations, and all their hopes for reform by the North have been dashed. All this time, North Korea had been grinding its knives while all of us, celebrating the two summit meetings, practiced our congratulatory speeches.
What should South Korea do now?
With Pyongyang on a hard track, South Korea and the U.S. should reshape their North Korea policies. All strategies, including those on civilian exchange, aid, nuclear weapons and reunification, should be reset. South Korea’s principle of reunification through the formation of an ethnic community was based on the premise that North Korea would accept a soft track. Now that North Korea’s intentions are clear, even this master plan will have to be reviewed.
The sinking of the Cheonan is a tragedy for South Korea. However, we can use it as an opportunity to shape the future of the Korean Peninsula. If South Korea and the international community form a resolute, united front, North Korea will experience internal tremors. The hereditary rule of the Kim Il Sung dynasty has lasted for 62 years. It has reached the point where it may fail from fatigue.
History shows that no tyranny can last forever. Most dictatorships end in the first generation, and often tragically. The dictatorship relay of the Castro brothers in Cuba might be considered long, but it won’t go past 60 years. The Duvalier regime of father and son in Haiti lasted just 29 years.
Even with all its strangeness, North Korea is unlikely to witness the succession of a grandson in their dictatorship. By choosing the hard track, the Kim Jong-il regime has set sail for a sea of isolation and unknown dangers. We don’t know when and where the next North Korean weapon might be fired. But if and when it is, it will surely be much more powerful than the one that exploded in the waters near Baengnyeong Island.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Jin