[Viewpoint] Military clash: A constant variableAmong the many news articles on North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island and on the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea, one report caught my attention.
“The news about the clash near the Northern Limit Line spread among the students at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, and the entire university was stirred as tension rose over the possibility of a full-scale war. The rumor that Kim Jong-un had praised the unit that attacked Yeonpyeong Island spread among students,” the report said.
The clash has been conveyed to the capital of Pyongyang, and there are talks that suggest the heir’s involvement.
Although the article was rather small and was downplayed compared to major scoops, the story contains an essence of the Yeonpyeong Island bombardment, namely the power transfer from the sickly absolute ruler Kim Jong-il to the young successor Kim Jong-un.
When Kim Jong-il felt threatened after a series of collapses of Eastern European socialist states, the death of Kim Il Sung and a devastating flood in the early 1990s, Kim advocated “Military First Leadership” as the new ideology of rule. He pledged to protect and construct socialism based on the revolutionary spirit and combat strength of the People’s Army.
Although the cause was to protect socialism, the actual purpose was to ensure the eternal rule of the Kim dynasty founded by Kim Il Sung. In 1995, Kim Jong-il launched the military-first policy by visiting the Dabaksol Guard Post, and the policy became the foundation of the North Korean system for over a decade.
North Korea managed to get over the great famine called the March of Tribulation and scored positive economic growth in the early 2000s.
However, Kim Jong-il reportedly had a stroke in August 2008, and the military-first policy faced a serious obstacle. If Kim were healthy, the government could focus on economic rehabilitation while smoothly proceeding with the succession. But Kim’s health problems added the tough task of “early and soft landing of the succession structure” on the already full agenda.
Moreover, there are a few conditions Pyongyang has to attain. The highest priority is to make sure the citizens have an adequate food supply. They also have to prepare a security plan in response to the South Korea-U.S. alliance. North Koreans desperately ask China for help. That’s why Kim Jong-il has visited China twice this year despite his fragile health.
However, the circumstances do not help young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un. The 26-year-old successor has no track record in state administration and lacks the experience in power struggles and the charisma that helped his grandfather and father stay in power. In this case, an effective prescription is to encourage internal unity by elevating security tension.
The scheme is to drive the entire society into a mood similar to a war. Then, the people would increasingly believe that they have to rally around Kim Jong-un as leader in order to survive.
So the spread of the news of the Yeonpyeong Island bombardment at Kim Il Sung University can be understood as a tactic to manipulate public sentiment.
Since the provocation is related to the soft-landing of the succession structure, a similar incident may happen again anytime. The possibility of another provocation becomes higher especially if the South provides even the slightest reason for Pyongyang to transfer responsibility to Seoul, such as the Yeonpyeong Island unit’s artillery drill.
The South has to be thoroughly prepared for another attack and carry out an immediate retaliation. The possibility will only decrease when the six-party talks resume and the South provides economic assistance.
However, unless Pyongyang makes a fundamental change of attitude and gives an apology, Seoul and Washington will not soften the anger.
In the end, hostile confrontation between the South and the North is likely to continue. A serious race has now begun.
A possible provocation or an attack by the North in the future is not something to be contained or stopped by a flexible response on the side of Seoul.
The threat is likely to continue until their fundamental demands are met, such as a peace agreement, diplomatic ties with the United States and withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.
That’s why we have to strike back using formidable force immediately after a provocation in order to frustrate Pyongyang’s will.
As a crisis escalates and lengthens, we are called to become united internally, especially among the politicians. If a provocation results in a split in the South and unity in the North, we can never win this fight.
The Democratic Party must realize that their adherence to the Sunshine Policy cannot win the support of the people. The ruling party also needs to deviate from the attitude of making the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations responsible for the security crisis.
Talking about the past will not bring any results. Politicians have to set an example by bringing forces together to break through the crisis. If they are jeopardizing national security by engaging in political struggle, they are committing a historical sin.
*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Ahn Hee-chang