North Korea’s provocations

Diplomatic engagement of North Korea is unappealing but necessary to avoid cataclysmic military confrontations.

Ian Byrne

Sipping on a glass of Hennessey and watching his favorite James Bond film, I wonder if it has ever occurred to Kim Jong Il that he is Ernst Blofeld in real life. Blofeld (Dr. Evil is his spoof version in the Austin Powers series) attempts many times to wreak havoc on the international system. It is in Thunderball that Blofeld mimics Kim Jong Il the most. In Thunderball, Blofeld steals two nuclear devices with the objective of blackmailing the West with the threat of a nuclear explosion in Miami. Replace Miami with the Korean peninsula, and youâÄôve got a modern day security dilemma. Kim Jong Il has to be familiar with this story considering his collection of more than 20,000 VHS tapes.

Unfortunately there is no James Bond who will thwart Kim Jong IlâÄôs ambitions, only a hesitant Chinese state and a South Korea and U.S. paralyzed by the risk of a catastrophic military engagement.

North KoreaâÄôs latest shenanigans began last weekend when it was revealed that it had built a highly sophisticated uranium enrichment facility over the past year. The plant was shown to Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The reason for alarm is that North KoreaâÄôs two nuclear bombs that were tested previously used spent nuclear material from a nuclear reactor. The uranium enrichment facility hints that North Korea would enrich uranium for the sole purpose to be used in nuclear bombs.

On Monday, Nov. 21, the Korean Central News Agency of the Democratic PeopleâÄôs Republic of Korea published an article denouncing calls for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula by “The chief executive of south Korea.” The article asserts, “The balderdash of the south Korean authorities revealed their anti-reunification intention to stand in confrontation with the DPRK to the last while denying dialogue and cooperation.” The strong tone of the article addressing North KoreaâÄôs nuclear capability is seldom seen from the KCNA, which usually writes about bogus foreign delegations visiting the country or Kim Il SungâÄôs “brilliance.”

The showcasing of its new uranium enrichment facility and publication of that article are clearly part of an effort to bolster the image of North KoreaâÄôs nuclear capabilities and aims.

The destructive public relations campaign came to a head last Tuesday when North Korea fired artillery shells at the island of Yeonpyeong, a South Korean territory near the disputed Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea. Two South Korean Marines and two civilians were killed in the attack. The artillery barrage put South Korean forces on high alert and has stoked anger and fear within South Korea.

This is the second time this year that North Korea has attacked South Korea. In March, North Korea was blamed for the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy frigate, which killed over 40 sailors.

North KoreaâÄôs upcoming transfer of power is the root of the recent provocations by North Korea. Kim Jong Il, who is reportedly in poor health, has named his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his successor. Kim Jong Un is seen as young and inexperienced but was recently appointed to a high-level position in the North Korean military.

While the major players are known and succession scenarios have been drawn up by experts outside North Korea, the consensus is that no one really knows what will happen once Kim Jong Il dies. That is why it is imperative that the U.S. and South Korea engage with North Korea now.

ItâÄôs not an appealing option considering the recent attacks on South Korea, the blind eye North KoreaâÄôs ruling elite turns to its impoverished people or the fruitless nature of negotiations over the past years. However, with North Korea it isnâÄôt so much about achieving diplomatic gains but preventing a catastrophic military conflict that would thrust North Korea and China against South Korea and the U.S. This would be cataclysmic on a political and economic scale.

Since the six-party talks were halted in April 2009, North Korea has gone on to conduct a missile test under the guise of a satellite launch, expelled nuclear inspectors, tested one nuclear device, sunk the Cheonan killing over 40 sailors and shelled Yeonpyeong, killing two civilians and two South Korean Marines. The short time frame and severity of events is cause for alarm.

To South KoreaâÄôs credit, it has shown great restraint when responding to North KoreaâÄôs belligerent actions. South Korea has always deferred to the international community to devise a punishment for North Korea. Sanctions and joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises have become the norm.

In response to TuesdayâÄôs attack, South Korea and the U.S. have begun military exercises. President Barack Obama announced that the U.S.S. George Washington aircraft carrier would take part in the exercises. These exercises are a necessary show of force and are an effective means of conveying a message, as evidenced by the tantrums North Korean officials throw at the presence of the George Washington. However, sanctions and military exercises alone should not define our policy of engagement with North Korea.

We understand the insanity that is North Korea under Kim Jong Il much better than we understand it under Kim Jong Un or whoever else might take the reins following Kim Jong IlâÄôs death.

IâÄôm not convinced much headway will be made in North Korea-South Korea-U.S. relations in the near future. Kim Jong IlâÄôs death will present North Korea with an opportunity to redefine its relations with the rest of the world. Until then, South Korea and the U.S. should diplomatically engage with North Korea in an effort to prevent any further irrational provocations that could lead to chaos in the region.

 

Ian Byrne welcomes comments
at [email protected].