There has been a tendency to view North Korea’s leadership as bordering on irrationality, if not outright psychosis. There has evolved the alternate view, however, that Pyongyang’s ruling clique of the Kim family and its coterie of elderly generals use seeming instability as a tool of their negotiating technique.
There can be no question that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has played upon the theme of its starving population to generate sympathy in Washington administrations of both parties that produce agreements to ship food, fuel and other basic commodities. Threats by the United States periodically to cease such humanitarian actions do not produce the expected cooperative result, yet eventually Washington succumbs and resumes shipments. This is not exactly an effective “carrot and stick” leverage.
The privations of the Korean people of the North have been presented by its leadership as part of the price that must be paid for the DPRK to maintain its independence. Washington and the West have always found it difficult to deal with the arcane workings of the imperial government of North Korea that operates in its own version of Stalinist Russia. With the third generation of Kims now in place, there hasn’t been a clear sign yet of any change in the North’s purposeful enigmatic method of governance.
There appears to be a disconnection between American military and civilian specialists on DPRK affairs. On the civilian side is the instinctive belief that the problems in dealing with Pyongyang are political and diplomatic. Those analysts who are oriented to military perceptions find that little has changed in the nearly sixty years of armistice/controlled hostility. The big difference is the growth of all aspects of the DPRK’s military power.
The aggressiveness and capability of their armed forces was calculatedly placed on display in March 2010 when the North Korean navy torpedoed and sunk the South Korean frigate Cheonan in an unprovoked attack. That was followed in late November of the same year with the heavy artillery shelling of the fortified island of Yeonpyeong.
Not only were these actions meant to warn the Republic of Korea (ROK) armed forces that the DPRK military remained a power with which they must continue to reckon, but it was equally a reminder to Pyongyang’s own forces that they could and would be called on to jump into action at a moment’s notice. In other words, the message from the aging generals to the younger ones — and on down the command — was that full scale combat always remains just around the corner.
For some reason Washington has never really accepted the fact that the leadership of the DPRK — no matter which Kim was in power at the moment — believes that the United States’ ultimate ambition is to take over the North. While North Korea’s neighbor, China, tries gently to disabuse Pyongyang of such thoughts, Beijing does not find it in its interest to press too hard on this line of diplomatic argument. It is to China’s advantage to maintain a protective — if somewhat paranoid — ally guarding its northeastern reaches.
Western governments now have to adjust to the concept of dealing with a North Korea without a clearly authoritative individual leader. The existence of the young ruler, Kim Jong-un, guided by his aunt and her very experienced husband, Jiang Song-taek, however, fits well into what might be called the oligarchic autocracy of Pyongyang’s leadership cadre of elderly generals. In the meantime the fact that the late Kim Jong-il had placed his brother-in-law as head of the department that oversees internal security reinforces the regency of Jiang and his wife.
At this juncture the DPRK strategy is to return to provocative acts in a challenge to the U.S./ROK threat to take “appropriate counteraction” such as was nottaken after the frigate sinking. The launching of the North Korean satellite, according to Pentagon analysts, is simply an early warning for the expected completed development of an ICBM weapon in the next one to two years — or perhaps even earlier. Pyongyang is carefully watching Washington’s reaction — as is Iran and the rest of the world.
The North Koreans hold the strategic initiative and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday is the perfect time to test Washington’s own strategic will. At this point the political and military posture of South Korea is actually tougher than that of the Obama Administration. Seoul does not put much faith in Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific.”
This spring and summer are of particular importance to Washington-Pyongyang relations. The North Korean leadership group sees President Obama in the pre-election mode as he explained to President Medvedev. The difference in reaction of Pyongyang and Moscow, however, is that the former has no reason to wait for Mr. Obama’s promised “flexibility.” The lack of an American attack to prevent the satellite launch will be “flexibility” enough for the moment — and Pyongyang would not be irrational to think so.