North Korea's (Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- DPRK) continuing efforts to maintain political and military pressure on the United States is difficult for Washington to understand. It seems so simple in American terms: Pyongyang needs only to reduce its military power, primarily in the field of nuclear weapon development and missile delivery systems, and investment and aid will flow into the North. The problem with this thesis is that the DPRK leadership needs confrontation with South Korea (Republic of Korea -- ROK) and the U.S. to maintain control of their country.
For sixty years North Korea has held itself in a state of war, physically and legally. No peace treaty was ever signed after the original Korean War armistice of 1953 and Pyongyang has never allowed the world to forget that fact. That's Pyongyang's ultimate justification for the torpedoing in March of the ROK patrol warship, Cheonan. The DPRK Navy had been waiting for a chance to retaliate for an embarrassing confrontation with South Korean naval forces in November 2009, in which a North Korean armed patrol vessel was badly mauled in a firefight with an ROK naval vessel in disputed waters off the western end of South Korea near the ROK-held island of Daecheong.
If Pyongyang had wanted to create an incident to provoke a war they would have followed up with further military action after the latest torpedoing incident. Instead they reacted comparatively mildly by breaking economic ties and denying commercial airline overflights. At the same time the Kaesong joint industrial park project that accounts for more than half of the trade between the two Koreas was left open. Some South Korean workers were expelled, however, which will cause local difficulty -- but that's the extent of it.
Another possible reason for the sinking of the South Korean warship -- for which Pyongyang denies any responsibility in spite of detailed analyses by international teams -- is the desire on the part of Kim Jong-il to assert his family's continued commitment to the military ethos of their leadership. The timing would appear to be linked to the evolving succession of Kim Jong-il's third son, Kim Jong-eun.
The Western world may have moved beyond the concept of military power as a guiding principle of internal political authority, but the revolutionary theme of the deified Great Leader Kim Il-sung was based firmly on the concept of Korean resistance to all invaders. To be eligible to lead in the shadow of the still dominant example of the nation's founder, the power to "resist" must be regularly exhibited. This is the tenet Kim Jong-il has followed and the one that he seeks to inculcate in his own son and heir.
This doctrine is the essence of the contemporary North Korean political philosophy known as juche. Sovereignty, resistance, and autonomy are the pillars of the self-reliance and self-determination on which the ideology of juche rests. Kim Il-sung firmly believed in this principle and since his death has become for his countrymen the embodiment of its spirit. As North Koreans are regimented to attest, the Great Leader lives on through these beliefs.
Along with a quasi-religious commitment to the rectitude of their philosophy goes an extremely well disciplined ability to carry on their war in what occidental minds would consider a non-physical sense. While the United States struggles to iron out terms of agreement to build a peaceful relationship, the North Koreans work at creating obstacles at each step -- even when appearing to agree.
The North Koreans use the American efforts to seek common ground with the DPRK as simply a playing field for a game of their own choosing. In this process the argument can be reinforced or diverted by both intellectual and physical action. Exploding an underground nuclear device on last year's Memorial Day weekend punctuated the so-called negotiation on the North's nuclear weapon development.
The new Obama government was surprised and shocked. The South Koreans explained the ploy to Washington and countered with their own attack six months later on a North Korean patrol vessel. Washington finds the negotiating process endlessly frustrating -- as the North Korean counterparts intend. Even the effort to pull together a new round of six-party talks is replete with obstacles. Secretary of State Clinton brought a 400-page analysis to meetings with the Chinese to prove the sinking of the ROK vessel was done by a DPRK submarine. Of course, Chinese intelligence officers stationed in Pyongyang already knew that.
Pyongyang just says it's all lies while the Americans continue to believe that the two sides actually are negotiating toward some mutually acceptable end. President Obama greeted the news of the torpedoing of the Cheonan by what he considers a forceful response when he characterized the military operation as an "act of aggression …one more instance of North Korea's unacceptable behavior and defiance of international law."
Meanwhile a leaked United Nations report states Pyongyang is using front companies to export nuclear and missile technology to Iran, Syria, and Burma. After all this time Washington is still asking the same question: "Why are the North Koreans doing this?" And Pyongyang just carries on its war.
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