How far is it possible for a nation to progress when it essentially disregards the general welfare of its population? The leaders of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) have long since decided that it's acceptable to them to allow other countries (such as China, South Korea and the U.S.) to worry about North Korean citizens while the long established hierarchy put their effort in building their military/scientific infrastructure and churning out arms and equipment for its favored and tough armed forces.
The DPRK defense strategy is based on the concept that the United States will never attack on a first strike basis (conventional or nuclear) and that the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south also will respond only to North Korean initiatives. This places Pyongyang in total military control of their fate, even if they are relatively weak in the international political scene.
Recently the North Koreans have tested their strategy by sinking a South Korean frigate that in turn brought nothing but a show of force by the U.S. and ROK navies in the Yellow Sea. This was then followed by the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing several civilians and wounding twelve. To this action the Seoul government responded simply with a well-publicized artillery and tank live fire exercise.
Before Pyongyang launched its shelling operation, it proudly showed off its previously secret new uranium enrichment facility. Aside from some huffing and puffing, Washington responded by reiterating it would not have one-on-one talks with the Pyongyang and made a big show of questioning the value of renewed six-party negotiations. What's more, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico was allowed by the Obama Administration to slip himself back into foreign affairs by making yet again another "personal" trip to North Korea that resulted only in bolstering his own ego.
Meanwhile the DPRK's prime ally, China, has kept up a steady drumbeat calling for a resumption of the six-power talks. Again the vision of the impoverished North Korean populace in the midst of winter is used along with "growing tensions" on the border of the North and South. Pyongyang propagandistically characterizes all problems as stemming from the belligerent attitude of the Seoul government of Lee Myung-bak. Once again black is defined as white and white as black. Perhaps President Obama will inquire about this absurd political colorization when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives for his much-heralded Washington state visit on January 19.
How long can this North Korean charade continue? The answer is that it will last -- and be embellished -- as long as Beijing acts as Pyongyang's protector. And there is no sign of that ending. In the meantime the DPRK actually grows in strength internationally as it finds more support in the United Nations among those countries following Hugo Chavez's political lead and ignoring North Korean sales of missiles and perhaps even nuclear technology to countries like Iran and Syria.
The objective of the current Kim Jong-il reign is to reinforce its existing partnership with the all-powerful North Korean military, intelligence and security apparat to ensure the effective transition to the next Kim as Leader, Kim Jong-eon. At the same time maintenance of tension on the Korean peninsula worries South Korea's customers in all its important markets. This plays to Pyongyang's methodology of keeping tensions high in order to put pressure on South Korea's voters to opt internally for a more appeasing and fraternally oriented political leadership.
All this clever maneuvering and saber rattling of the North is supposed to produce an advantageous political economic environment for North Korea that ultimately results in a leveraged trade with the South Koreans and possibly even some peace-seeking largesse from the United States. Do bad things and then get paid off to stop doing them. It has worked before!
In support of this typical cunning ploy, Pyongyang surprisingly has floated the line internationally that it is not at ease with its dependence on the very demanding friends in Beijing. If this appears rather ungrateful and perhaps even counter-productive, it is merely a reflection of the convoluted nature of the politics of the Kim dynasty. Beijing follows the big brother route and ignores the absurdity -- for the moment.
While such devices may play well with Bill Richardson and perhaps even President Obama, the reality is that open conflict between North and South Korea is only one military miscalculation away. This danger increases as the DPRK builds on its existing nuclear arsenal and improving missile technology.
There should be no false hope that North Korea in the foreseeable future will cease its effort to grow into a substantial military power. China knows this and is planning accordingly. How will Washington handle the situation? So far, in spite of much behind-the-scenes third party intervention, the U.S. has been relatively passive in its reaction. Unfortunately, passivity in countering aggressiveness generally encourages rather than diminishes the latter.
In any case, the answer to the question posed at the outset of this piece is that North Korea under the current form of regime will always sacrifice the interests of its population as it has in the past in order to stay in power. The next question has been asked since the early 1950s: How much should the United States care?