SO PARK GEUN-HYE HASN’T EVEN BEEN INAUGURATED YET, and her plans to engage North Korea – she called them “trustpolitik” – are turning out just as I’d predicted they would, and just how Sung Yoon Lee predicted in the opening paragraphs of this piece — they’re being overcome by North Korea’s own plans:
Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has ordered his top military and party officials to take “substantial and high-profile important state measures” to retaliate against American-led United Nations sanctions on the country, the North’s official media reported Sunday.
North Korea did not clarify what those measures might be, but it referred to a series of earlier statements in which Mr. Kim’s government has threatened to launch more long-range rockets and conduct a third nuclear test to build an ability to “target” the United States.
Mr. Kim threw his weight …
Excuse me, did the New York Times correspondent just make a fat joke?
… behind his government’s escalating standoff with Washington when he called a meeting of top security and foreign affairs officials and gave an instruction in his name. He inherited the posts of supreme party and military leaders from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011. [N.Y. Times]
When North Korea blusters against the Security Council, remember that South Korea just began a term as a non-permanent member. According to the Times, the North specifically said that its subjects “demand” a nuclear test. It also explicitly threatened the United States, whose Presidents have kept it off the list of state sponsors of terrorism since October 11, 2008, to reward it for its progress toward nuclear disarmament. Discuss among yourselves.
For what it’s worth, KCNA’s rhetoric is especially high-proof these days. I’ll give you a Whitman’s sampler:
“The DPRK already stated to the world that it will react to the confrontation elements’ provocation with immediate retaliatory blows and their war of aggression with a grand and just war for national reunification. The group of traitors should heed this warning and not go indiscreet. The provokers will meet only merciless retaliatory blows.”
My personal favorite, referring to annual U.S.-ROK joint exercises, “Those who dare provoke the just cause of the DPRK will meet death only.” In related news, The Onion reports that all North Korea is in celebration at learning that Kim Jong Un is the first man to walk on the moon. This a serious North Korea-watching site. One of the important public services we provide is to mark the increasingly treacherous boundary between reality and parody.
To be fair, North Korea’s rhetoric (as quoted here) explicitly refers to the Lee Administration, not Park, but does so in reference to policy decisions that Park presumably supports and probably intends to continue.
Many tea-leaf-readers who are skilled at parsing North Korean New Year’s messages for vague and cryptic hints of reform or cross-border thaws that the rest of us can’t quite see have a corresponding talent for overlooking or discounting the most direct, patent, and brazen threats from Pyongyang. Don’t expect to see any deep analysis of these things at 38 North, although I do look forward to Joel Wit’s post explaining why the coming provocations and Park’s curtailment of cash flow to the North in response are somehow Park Geun Hye’s fault, or perhaps even Barack Obama’s. My advice to Mr. Wit would be to wait about two years. By then, memories will have faded, and some people will still want to believe it as much as ever.
My problem is that I remember too much. I’ve watched these cycles repeat themselves enough to see patterns. The pattern I see here is of a North Korea that ramps up its provocations when new U.S. and ROK administrations come into office. The long-received conventional wisdom held that North wanted better relations with the U.S. and South Korea, and was (however cautiously) open to engagement, the expansion of trade, and economic integration. Years of evidence do not support that view, which is why its remaining advocates are now probably a minority among North Korea watchers.*
In fact, the evidence really suggests that North Korea intentionally frames its relationships with newly elected administrations around provocations. You can debate whether that’s to extort or to create the safety of distance. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Richardson once called this “strategic disengagement,” meaning that North Korea uses provocations to limit foreign interaction. I’ve always seen considerable merit in that, and I would add that the North calibrates international tension just enough to maintain that level of trade needed to keep a modest amount of regime-sustaining hard currency flowing in. This makes sense to me, because I’ve never believed North Korea was interested in engagement for any purpose other than to fund a few high-priority projects and lifestyles. Its tolerance for any particular interaction is proportional to a series of factors, including the economic benefit to be gained, its own need for hard currency, and the degree to which the “cultural pollution” associated with those interactions can be controlled.
Yet although some have (perversely, in my view) constructed arguments blaming Lee Myung Bak for the deterioration of North-South relations, the odd thing about this is that North-South trade actually increased during Lee’s term, although some kinds of higher-profile engagement were curtailed. North Korea felt the need, and also the ability, to attack the South militarily without losing this key source of revenue. The scary thing about this? North Korea can only calibrate these tensions as carefully as it does by maintaining a great deal of insider knowledge of how the South Korean government thinks and reacts. North Korea seems to have sunk the Cheonan and shelled Yeongpyeong secure in the knowledge that South Korea wouldn’t close down Kaesong. Ilshimhue must have been just the tip of the iceberg.
* The majority, which includes many who have lost hope in Sunshine, is harder to characterize. Mostly, I see a few gloating hard-liners mixing uneasily with disillusioned ex-Sunshiners who still hope, against their better judgment, for something they don’t really believe in. They’re mostly waiting for the next shoe to drop. Most of them are frank enough to admit that they don’t know what to say anymore.
Update, 5 Feb 2013: The Daily NK reports that the state has begun its anti-Park demonization campaign:
The source added, “He stated that the new Park Geun Hye administration wants to start a war with us, so people from every organ, enterprise and Worker and Peasant Red Guard unit must prepare to meet the threat. He emphasized that the people must be on guard at all times and stay prepared to respond to any provocation.”
I often suspect that the content of the regime’s external propaganda is different from what the regime tells its people domestically.