Another day, another North Korean threat.
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Rations also may have been reduced in Pyongyang, where the party and bureaucratic elite reside. Moreover, the universities have been closed, with students assigned to work in preparation for next year’s centennial celebrations of the birth of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. Until now, the nomenklatura appeared to have been largely insulated from the impact of the DPRK’s catastrophic economic failure. Western food assistance risks easing conditions for the elite rather than the people of North Korea.
Washington also is being pressed to resume nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. The North says it wants talks with the U.S. and South Korea, and has proposed another inter-Korean summit. The DPRK also is pressing for resumption of the Six-Party Talks, which include China, Russia, and Japan. China has proposed a three-stage process, beginning with bilateral discussions between the two Koreas, continuing with U.S.-DPRK talks, and then culminating in another round of multilateral Talks.
In fact, nuclear envoys from North and South met last week in Indonesia, though earlier bilateral discussions were less civil. One recent inter-Korean effort collapsed into absurdity when Pyongyang accused South Korean officials of begging for a summit and offering to bribe the North’s negotiators.
Pyongyang recently hosted Robert King, the Obama administration’s special envoy for human rights to talk about human rights. Moreover, last weekend the administration announced that the North’s vice foreign minister would visit the U.S. to discuss renewed disarmament negotiations. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to sound tough: “We do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table. We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take.”
More hopeful was Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and Cabinet officer, who recently visited the North and proclaimed that “I think there’s a new pragmatism there.” Leon Sigal of the Social Science Research Council also contended that the North is prepared to make concessions.
However, the DPRK long has been willing to follow provocations with calls for negotiations and make promises which could be reversed. So far the process has yielded only dead ends. There’s no reason to expect more today. Especially since Pyongyang’s impending leadership transition inevitably will overshadow any talks.
Kim Jong-il succeeded his father after two decades of planning. In contrast, Kim only began the process of elevating his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, after suffering a stroke in August 2008. Although some Chinese academics with whom I recently spoke believe Kim Jong-il’s health is reasonably good, he reportedly limited his activities on his most recent trip to China. In any case, no one believes that he has 20 years to manage Jong-un’s rise.
Evidence of the rush to burnish the younger Kim’s reputation is the suspicion that the North’s bloody belligerence last year and recent rhetorical flourishes have been part of a campaign to build a nationalist narrative around Kim Jong-un. Disarmament would run contrary to this effort.
Although Kim Jong-il appears to remain fully in charge, there is no guarantee that his succession wishes will survive him. Only two men have ruled the DPRK since it was founded in 1948. There must be a number of other figures who see their claim to leadership as superior to that of a chubby 20-something with no accomplishments.
Kim must divide power among a host of potential contenders to ensure that no one overshadows his son after his death. Kim cannot even trust his own family: he has two other sons, one in semi-exile in Macau; a younger half-brother, until recently the ambassador to Poland, now reportedly under house arrest; a brother-in-law, perhaps the regime’s de facto number two but only an alternate member of the politburo; and a fourth wife/consort, so far with only a minor political role. Kim has little reason to take the political risks that would come from abandoning the nuclear program.
Indeed, Kim must placate the military to ensure its acquiescence to his succession plan. Creating a nuclear arsenal is the logical culmination of his “military first” campaign and he increasingly has elevated military officers in government. They are unlikely to favor giving up weapons which took so much effort to create.
Kim’s successors are no more likely to favor disarmament. Kim’s death may initially result in collective leadership with an inevitable power struggle. No one would want to alienate the military. And it would take time for any civilian who prevailed to amass the kind of authority required to order disposal of the military’s most important weapon.
Some in the West remain hopeful, seeing the road to reform in Pyongyang running through Beijing. However, despite indications that some Chinese elites are growing more frustrated with the DPRK, the two countries’ historic and geopolitical ties remains strong. While the PRC has strongly discouraged the Kim regime from making further military provocations, the Beijing authorities have been strengthening their economic ties with North Korea.
Chinese policymakers emphasize the danger of creating instability by pushing the North past its breaking point. Undoubtedly Beijing also hopes to win increased control over North Korean resources.
Equally important, though unstated, is China’s desire not to have a united peninsula allied with America and hosting American troops on its border. In contrast, the current situation leaves the U.S. and South Korea constantly beholden to Beijing, seeking its aid in dealing with an irresponsible North.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?