[Viewpoint] Catching Washington’s attentionKim Jong-un is something like 26 years old — his actual birthdate is still unknown. While he has become the heir to an omnipotent throne in North Korea, his peers across the border are returning to university campuses fresh from military service or hunting for jobs. Kim Jong-un has been designated to lead to the world’s most erratic and insecure state.
North Korea’s dangers will be heightened if the new leader succumbs to the temptations of recklessness and daredevilry with his newfound power over weapons of mass destruction: missiles and nuclear bombs.
The North Korean risk level will inevitably soar as the familiar and readable threat from Kim Jong-il is replaced by an unfathomable and uncontrollable leadership, led by the younger Kim. Another tragedy like the attack on the Cheonan naval ship may be in store.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-il probably aimed for a “shock effect” by putting forward his young son earlier than expected as his heir apparent. Many North Korea watchers believe Kim’s deteriorating health problems led to the sudden decision. But I believe there was another motive — to gain the attention of Washington for long-sought diplomatic relations with the U.S. through renewed talks on missiles and nuclear weapons.
The showy Workers’ Party convention is an example to prove my point. The rubber-stamp conference of party representatives that convened for the first time in more than 40 years took a single day and functioned as the coming-out party for Kim Jong-un.
In addition, without any specific reason, North Korea promoted three senior officials involved in nuclear negotiations before the party meeting. First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sokju, in charge of negotiations with Washington and in the nuclear talks, was named vice premier. Pyongyang’s top nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan, a vice foreign minister, was promoted to Kang’s position. His deputy Ri Yongho, stepped into Kim’s role as envoy to the nuclear talks.
The promotions sent a message to Washington that Pyongyang wants higher-level talks. The timing of the power succession is both intriguing and obvious. Pyongyang announced that Kim Jong-un was made four-star general on Oct. 28 at 1:00 a.m. and then named him as second in command of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Military Commission a day after at wee hour of four o’clock in the morning, when the North Korean population was fast asleep. At the time of the two announcements, it would have been midday in Washington and three o’clock in the afternoon, respectively. North Korea generously timed the announcements for American policymakers and its news audience. The historic event of naming a successor to Kim Jong-il was announced to Americans before the North Korean people. There is more evidence that the younger Kim’s surprise promotion was choreographed specifically for Washington. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 29, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Park Kil-yon said, “As long as the U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers sail around the seas of our country, our nuclear deterrent can never be abandoned, but should be strengthened further.”
Then a few days later, satellite footage showed renewed construction near a cooling tower in Yongbyon where plutonium was produced for nuclear arms before 2008. Then North Korean official media released photos and news of the heir apparent accompanying his father Kim Jong-il, aunt Kim Kyong-hui — who was also made a general at the same time as Kim Jong-un — and senior party and military leaders to watch a live-fire drill, while visiting a military unit armed with scud and long-range missiles. Supreme leader Kim Jong-il visited army unit 851 six times since 2000, before and after the country test-fired missiles and its nuclear weapons.
Kim may have various reasons to choose a strategically important military site for his son’s first official debut. He was sending a message to Washington that his 20-something son will be taking over the control switch for missiles and nuclear weapons. The message was that if Washington doesn’t want to risk dealing with an inexperienced leader, it should come to the negotiation table before the Dear Leader’s health deteriorates further.
The underlying threat is that the younger Kim may be encouraged to test his new power with missiles and a nuclear arsenal. At the same time, Kim aims to strengthen the power base for his young heir at home through nuclear leverage.
Kim is barking up the wrong tree as Washington remains steadfast in its policy to not respond to North Korean threats. The only way for Pyongyang’s leaders to gain attention from Washington — and ultimately, diplomatic recognition — is to end its nuclear program and “military first” policy and focus on fixing its shattered economy.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the head of the Peace Forum for the world and Northeast Asia.
By Chang Sung-min