More guerilla tacticsEpisode One: It was during inter-Korean Red Cross talks in Pyongyang on Aug. 27, 1985. South Korea’s delegates were escorted to Kim Il Sung Stadium to watch a display of mass games by students. But instead of innocent acrobatics, thousands of children clad in North Korean army uniforms brandished threatening bayonets. The South Korean representatives protested the show as a breach of agreements between the two sides but the North Koreans didn’t listen. They angrily demanded the delegation apologize to the hard-performing students for rudely walking out in the middle of their vigorous performance.
Episode Two: It’s midnight on Oct. 18, 1990, and South Korean Prime Minister Kang Young-hoon and his entourage are in a deep dilemma in a guest house in Pyongyang. It is the highest-level contact between the two Koreas since the end of the war but North Korea has again ignored prior agreements and arranged a meeting at the guesthouse with North Korean relatives of Kang and other South Korean delegates who were born in the North.
If they accepted the offer and met their long lost relatives, they would come under fire for using the occasion for their own selfish interests. If they refused the offer, the North Koreans would likely use them in their propaganda, portraying South Koreans as a ruthless lot who shunned long-lost family members who came to see them. The South Korean delegates consulted with Seoul and were told to meet the relatives in secrecy. The North Koreans foiled that plan by leaking news of the meetings to the South Korean media a few days later.
What do these two separate episodes tell? They underscore that the Pyongyang regime runs on guerilla survival tactics. The classic patterns include deception, saber-rattling, waywardness and hit-and-run operations. Since Kim Il Sung established his supposedly self-reliant ruling system based on an all-pervasive personality cult in 1967, North Korea has been running a government system entirely detached from and incongruous with international society and order. Maybe that is how the despotic regime survived throughout the decades, fashioning itself as a deity worth of worship. Under a normal system, a three-generation dynastic succession could not have been possible. Pyongyang is used to resorting to foul play and dirty tricks because it has no competition.
A nuclear weapons program is obviously the jewel in the crown of a governing system built out of a guerilla survival manual. Pyongyang successfully hid its program from Seoul, Washington and the rest part of the world for more than two decades. Kim Il Sung laughed that the country had neither the intent nor the capacity to develop nuclear arms. Kim Jong-il reiterated that keeping the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free had been the will of his father. Pyongyang maintained that its nuclear program was a statement, a tool to hasten negotiations and eventually diplomatic relations with the U.S. and a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice.
Even with suspicions, the international community believed it could contain North Korea through negotiations and put up with its continual brinkmanship. While keeping a straight face in endless, on-and-off talks, North Korea continued its weapons program. It dubbed itself a nuclear state last April, launched a long-range missile disguised as satellite delivery vehicle in December, and has now done its third nuclear test - all in the classic guerilla hit-and-run style.
It is evident why Kim Jong-un, the young scion of the Kim dynasty, set off the nuclear device despite opposition from his biggest ally, China, as well as strong warnings from the U.S. He is familiar with the cycle. North Korea’s provocations upset the international community but are gradually forgotten. In six months time, Washington and Beijing will ask for talks. Kim Jong-un would have proved that he can be as daring and ruthless as his father. The timing cleverly coincided with leadership transitions in Seoul, Washington and Beijing.
North Korea may be congratulating itself for outsmarting the global powers and South Korea. Maybe it has - for the time being. But North Koreans are blind to the lessons of history. In his book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” British historian Paul Kennedy claimed that dominant powers in the past have fallen because of an “overstretch” of military power that exacts devastating economic and political consequences.
The theory has been proven over and over in world history. Kim and his inner circle may be popping the champagne corks now, but their party won’t last long. Regardless of the outcome of the third test, North Korea cannot escape the inevitable doom brought on by overstretching. The magical effect of its “nuclear” trump card will dim and North Korea would only be further isolated and suffocate under harsher and tougher sanctions.
North Korea’s provocations will only unite South Koreans against a common threat. Pyongyang’s leaders may secretly believe they still have supporters in the South. They can go on dreaming. They will soon learn how foolish they have been.
*The author is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.
by Ahn Hee-chang