Hostile Policy Update: North Korea Kills Off Sunshine

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I don’t know why it comes as a surprise to anyone when North Korea reneges on anything:

North Korea said Friday it is ditching a nonaggression pact and all other peace agreements with South Korea, in an apparent attempt to use the threat of an armed clash to press Seoul to give up its “confrontational” stance.

The communist nation also said it will no longer respect a disputed sea border with the South, raising the prospect for an armed clash along the Yellow Sea boundary — the scene of deadly skirmishes between the two navies in 1999 and 2002. [AP, via IHT]

It was not entirely clear which agreements the North Koreans were talking about, as though the North had ever really felt bound by any of them. The exact words of the North Koreans were:

“We do declare that all the understandings for solving inter-Korean political and military confrontation are invalidated. [Daily NK]

But why? In most cases, you can safely assume that it’s about money, and when the North Koreans want to demand more, any old excuse will do. The most recent would seem to be the appointment of a new Unification Minister whose ideological views align with those of the elected president (the horror!). They were expecting Comrade Chung, perhaps? Maybe President Lee Myung Bak should have just scrapped the entire ministry as originally planned.

The real reason for North Korea’s new hostile policy probably has more to do with the interruption of billions of dollars in regime-sustaining extortion payments the North bullied out of previous left-leaning South Korean governments. Since his inauguration a year ago, President Lee has insisted that South Korea should actually get something back for its money — the return of Korean War prisoners of war or abductees, maybe the removal of some of those guns aimed at Seoul, or a little meaningful performance on one of many North Korean commitments to give up its nuclear arsenal. It’s pretty clear in retrospect that financing those programs was not an effective way to curtail them. And as for the theory that more “engagement” with the South would slowly transform the North into something less miserable and oppressive, there’s a lot more evidence for exactly the opposite.

South Koreans have seen all of this before. Most are reacting to the new announcement with yawns, although “analysts” think some sort of provocation near the Northern Limit Line could be in the works. The South Korean government warned the North that any intrusions across the Northern Limit Line will be met with a “resolute response.” According to the Daily NK, the North Korean military has canceled leaves and appears to be in a heightened state of alert.

(I would just like to say what pleasant change it is to see any Korean government, North or South, slinging strident rhetoric toward someone other than us for once.)

Most of the press reports also suggest that the North Koreans are trying to get the attention of Barack Obama, which is a half-truth, because what the North Koreans really want is their very own bailout. What we’re seeing is the beginning of the same old extortion racket the North Koreans have used against every new American president since at least Richard Nixon. There’s always a “crisis” with the North Koreans around the time of a presidential transition. And if my guess is right, the new administration is occupied with the selection of political appointees to fill key civil service posts and much less “ready from day one” than advertised to deal with the threat, however empty it may be, of a third theater war. Which means it’s quite likely that we’ll soon send some special envoy off to Pyongyang to find out the asking price of a few more months of quiet time for appointments, confirmations, and policy reviews.

Of course, North Korea can’t survive for long without the generous underwriting of nations with functioning economies. With its calculated alienation of the South and no immediate prospect of large-scale U.S. or Japanese aid, the North is turning to its main backer, China, to provide the support it will need to sustain its belligerence and terrorism in the meantime.

Updates, 31 Jan 09: Here’s the statement from North Korea’s “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland,” courtesy of KCNA:

Pyongyang, January 30 (KCNA) — The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued a statement Friday in connection with the situation on the Korean Peninsula growing tenser as the days go by due to the south Korean conservative authorities’ reckless moves to escalate the confrontation with the DPRK.

Citing facts to prove that the Lee Myung Bak group, far from reflecting on the treacheries of pushing the north-south relations to a serious crisis, shamelessly is challenging the north, raising a hue and cry over the “threat from the north” and “adherence to principle,” the statement said:

The inter-Korean relations have reached such pass that there is neither way to improve them nor hope to bring them on track. The confrontation between the north and the south in the political and military fields has been put to such extremes that the inter-Korean relations have reached the brink of a war.

The group of traitors has already reduced all the agreements reached between the north and the south in the past to dead documents.

Under such situation it is self-evident that there is no need for the DPRK to remain bound to those north-south agreements. [KCNA]

Oddly enough, even New York Times correspondent Choe Sang Hun has to concede the point I made above, that “North’s government has flouted [the agreements] repeatedly, rendering the pacts little more than symbolic.” It’s nice to hear a Times reporter admit that, even if only to minimize the significance of what North Korea is doing now. I would agree with the Times’s reporting today that the significance of the agreements is minimal, but unlike The Times, we’ve known it all along.

Continuing with the KCNA report, we quickly descend to state terrorism:

The statement vehemently denounced on behalf of all the Koreans the Lee group for having pushed the inter-Korean relations to the brink of a war through its moves to escalate the confrontation with the DPRK in gross violation of the inter-Korean agreements.

In view of the prevailing situation the statement solemnly clarified as follows:

First, all the agreed points concerning the issue of putting an end to the political and military confrontation between the north and the south will be nullified.

Second, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Cooperation and Exchange between the North and the South and the points on the military boundary line in the West Sea stipulated in its appendix will be nullified.

Holding the Lee Myung Bak group wholly accountable for the present grave situation to which the inter-Korean relations have been pushed, the statement continued:

Never to be condoned are the crimes the Lee group has committed against the nation and reunification by bedeviling overnight the inter-Korean relations that had favorably developed amidst the support and encouragement of all the Koreans and ruthlessly scrapping the inter-Korean agreements.

The Lee group seems to wait for something, calling for “adhering to the principle” but it will only face a heavier blow and shameful destruction. [KCNA]

President Lee’s response has generally been about right: not overreacting or rewarding the North Koreans, making sure there’s a destroyer standing by in the disputed area, and subtly highlighting, in a compassionate yet slightly bewildered tone, just who the regime’s actions really are hurting:

Mr. Lee, the South Korean president, who has largely ignored the recent North Korean threats, urged the North to reopen dialogue. “Of all the countries in the world, who cares the most sincerely about North Korea? The United States? Japan? China? Russia?” said Mr. Lee in a live television round-table discussion. “North Korea must realize that it’s South Korea. [N.Y. Times]

Lee could afford to be much less subtle about this. The regime’s hypersensitivity to criticism of its domestic atrocities and the bacchanalian lives of its leaders ought to be proof enough of how dangerous it believes those words to be. That’s one more example of leverage we often don’t realize we have. And realistically, what is North Korea going to do about it? Cut off our smack supply? Renege on all those disarmament agreements it already reneged on last year? Slaughter what’s left of its cash cows? Spurn our efforts to waste even more aid on it? Provoke a skirmish that could very well end in a destabilizing military humiliation? Start a war that would end life as Kim Jong Il and his corpulent little brood know it?

Another “pragmatic” step by Lee is to work more closely with Japan. The obvious objective must be to unite around some shared interests and jointly impress those upon the United States (the State Department meekly said that North Korea’s words are “not helpful,” but restated its commitment to the failed six-party talks). The outgoing administration was able to bypass the interests of both South Korea and Japan because the two Pacific neighbors were divided against each other. The combined influence of Japan and South Korea will be harder for this administration to ignore. President Lee’s advisors must be smart enough to know that a more cooperative relationship with Japan is one way to keep South Korea from becoming marginalized.

5 comments

  1. james says:

    a little bit of irish/NK drama. KJI’s buddy sean garland is screwed:

    http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gIygVNmjOdcmjMqDMVWOGVqeXvpQD961MS580

  2. KCJ says:

    Has this ever happened before?
    I’m a bit behind in Korea-watching seeing I have been completely emroiled in OIF/OEF since 2002. I was serving in Korea when the 1999 Yellow Sea skirmish went down. They locked us all down and put us on high alert.

    Complete dissolution of all inter-Korean relations sounds extreme. Is this just more bluster and brinksmanship? I think conditions in NK are very, very bad. Sometimes cults see the end coming (Branch Davidians, Jim Jones, Raeliens, etc…) and commit mass suicide, which is what a war with SK would be.

    I think we need to take this very, very seriously. Its winter, people are starving, droves are hazarding the cold to escape to China, the Christian evangelists’ leaflets are converting even PKA regulars, and KJI is incapacitated.

    I think we need to take this very, very seriously. I wouldn’t line a bird cage with the NYTs. Worthless. But this KCNA report is clearly aimed at Seoul, not Pyongyang.

  3. KCJ says:

    OK, in answer to my own question, NYTs (holding my nose while typing) reporter Choe Song Hun says it IS a first:

    ““What we can say is that we are beefing up our readiness,” a South Korean military spokesman, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity, said while declining to confirm the Yonhap report.

    Since the 1970s the two Koreas have signed a series of agreements for nonaggression, which the North’s government has flouted repeatedly, rendering the pacts little more than symbolic. Still, this was the first time that North Korea said that it was officially nullifying them.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/31/world/asia/31nkorea.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

  4. GI Korea says:

    I think Lee’s approach to North Korea may actually gain more support from the general South Korean population because of the current economic crisis. I doubt too many South Koreans would approve of billions of dollars going to North Korea when so many South Koreans are going through a hard time economically themselves right now.

  5. Joshua says:

    True, But the best that will mean is that some Koreans will support some of the right policies for a lot of the wrong reasons. And if it’s all about money, why take in refugees or press for reunification? The left argues that the South can’t afford the cost of reunification, and that it actually costs less to prop the regime up. After all, Uncle Sam is paying for a lot of the cost of South Korea’s defense. What they always disregard, of course, is the cost in North Korean lives, the very real global security risks, and the steady deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure. South Koreans tend to look at all of those costs as someone else’s problem.

    But the people of Korea will never fully achieve prosperity, nationhood, security, or a humane way of life without reunification, something that’s unlikely in the extreme unless the Kim Dynasty is overthrown, and which also becomes more costly on many levels with each year it’s delayed.

    What Korea desperately needs but does not have is true political leadership — someone who can help the people sacrifice short-term convenience for their long term interests. Lee may find it more “pragmatic” in the short term to play reactionary in the face of the left’s unrealistic/scary vision for reunification, but a political party can’t hold power for long without a vision of its own.

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