I don’t know about you, but I sure got tired of Park Geun Hye’s hippie Earth mother act last summer, after North Korea started making nice, right after banks all over China and Europe started blocking North Korean accounts. Thank God that’s over with. We’re back to steaming reactors, spinning centrifuges, war drums, nasty taunts, and all the things we’ve grown to love and miss about North Korea. The North was uncharacteristically quietly during August’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, but for reasons known only in Pyongyang, it’s having an apoplectic fit over another one being held now:
On Monday Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Pyongyang regime, called the exercise a “bellicose attempt to escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula […] by openly threatening it with nukes,” referring to the presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. (The U.S. has a policy of neither confirming nor denying whether its ships are equipped with nuclear armaments.)
Anyone want to start a pool on when KCNA puts up banners calling for Park’s disembowelment?
Referencing Park by name, rather than using the more neutral “chief executive” moniker, the spokesman warned the president that she was steering the Korean peninsula back into a period of dangerous “confrontation”. The commentary, carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency, was largely a response to a speech by Park on Tuesday urging Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. The president had also talked up the development of a military deterrent capability that would render the North’s nuclear weapons “useless”. [....]
“If Park and her group conspire with outsiders under the pretext of leading (North Korea) to ‘change’ … and force it to dismantle nuclear weapons, it will be little short of digging their own graves,” the NDC spokesman said. “There will be no bigger fool and poorer imbecile than the one who schemes to side with a nuclear-wielding robber and urge one’s own kinsmen to lower a knife first,” he added. [AFP]
“If our enemies try to threaten us in the slightest, the country will launch ruthless pre-emptive strikes of annihilation,” the CPRK said. [Yonhap]
How to explain the very different reaction? Well, one cause we can eliminate is the exercise itself, given the muted reaction to Ulchi Freedom Guardian. If there’s one thing we should know about North Korea by now, its mood is driven by its own hormonal cycle. No one really knows what’s driving that cycle, but I’ll offer some possibilities.
If you forced me to guess, I’d cite the need to keep the military on high alert and forward deployed as Kim Jong Un sacks the head of his armed forces for the third time since December 2011 (or so say a lot of journalists who don’t really know if that’s true or not). [Update: See also Aidan Foster-Carter's take--"this is not normal," although previous reports of Kim Kyok-Sik's demise have been (possibly) wrong.]
Money is always a reasonable guess, although the signs of financial distress aren’t that clear. Yonhap is reporting that North Korea’s exports to China rose 8 percent (compared to last year) in the first eight months of this year, “thanks to higher exports of coal, ores and woven garments,” while its imports fell by 6 percent. As always, we have to begin by observing that we have no idea if these figures are even accurate before we speculate about what they mean. It could mean that the blocking of some of North Korea’s offshore accounts has caused them to shift toward paying for imports with raw materials instead of cash. North Korea also sounds pretty desperate for hard currency from foreign investment, but what else is new?
This part, however, is much easier to explain: they’ve restarted the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, and said for the umpteenth time that they will never give up their nukes. I speculate that this is because they want them some nukes.
The National Intelligence Service informed lawmakers of the restart, ruling New Frontier Party lawmaker Cho Won Jin said by phone yesterday. Lawmakers were also told that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told his cabinet he plans to seek reunification with the South by force in three years, Cho said. [Yonhap]
Did you read that last sentence carefully? If you’re reading it from Seoul, no, I don’t have a spare room, unless you’re related to me.
Running the reactor at Yongbyon would mean the North is making good on promises made in April to restart the facility as part of efforts to produce energy and improve its nuclear armed force. The United Nations Security Council has imposed strict sanctions on the North in a bid for it to return to negotiations and abandon its nuclear ambitions. [Bloomberg]
Chris Hill was not available for comment. So what is the South Korean government doing to send a stern message it won’t give cash or concessions in response to North Korean threats? It’s asking us to give the North cash and concessions for (or at least, in the immediate aftermath of) North Korean threats. According to Yonhap, South Korea “will begin talks with the United States next month on whether to entitle its goods made in North Korea to advantageous tariffs under their bilateral free trade agreement.” But Kaesong’s Trojan Rabbit strategy is a conclusive failure. Why double down with a Trojan Badger?