For the past couple of weeks, the reporting on anything North Korea has reached a crescendo for the simple reason that foreign journalists have had some unprecedented access to what is arguably the most secretive society on the planet. The news has been noteworthy, the North Koreans tried and failed to launch a satellite into orbit and the world got it’s first look at the North’s new leader. With coverage of the rocket launch and birthday party have come countless opinions and analysis on all issues North Korean. Once again, we are all drawn to the Korean peninsula which still remains in a state of war, technically. An area where the last vestiges of the Cold War are still a stark reality. We watch the news from Pyongyang hoping for some insight into the thinking behind the reality of the worlds last Stalinist state.
The issues in North Korea are not as bilateral as you might think. It’s not all about what we want that matters to her neighbors. North Korea is a menacing neighbor. Isolated by decades of sanctions designed to reign in it’s military ambitions, the Pyongyang government is known for saber rattling with sometime reckless abandon to get what it needs from the rest of the world and it works over and over and over again. But why? Why are we all content to allow Pyongyang to continue on this uncharted course?
The world’s two biggest players in the region, the United States and China both have reasons for wanting a stable government in Pyongyang. Often to the chagrin of our allies, the reality is that what is best for the region, for better or worse, is what’s best for us. The United States and China fought a proxy war on the Korean Peninsula that ended in a cease-fire in 1953. A heavily fortified border separates the two Korea’s, north and south. For China, stability in Pyongyang means not having U.S. troops on China’s southern border and for the United States, it means not having to engage in expensive nation building and humanitarian aid to an impoverished nation.
Reuters reports that North Korea’s new leader delivered his first major public speech on Sunday as the impoverished state celebrated the centenary of its founder’s birth, calling for a push to “final victory” despite a failed rocket launch two days earlier. A jowly Kim Jong-un, clad in black and the third of his line to rule North Korea, read monotonously from a script in Pyongyang’s central square after goose-stepping soldiers and sailors showcased the North’s military power in a parade in spring sunshine. Smiling and joking with generals on a podium after the speech, Kim watched as the country’s missiles paraded past, a reminder that despite Friday’s embarrassing failure to successfully launch a rocket, North Korea packs a punch.
In a move that indicated Kim would stick to the “military-first” policies that have put North Korea on the verge of nuclear-weapons capacity, he lauded respectively his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il, as the “founder and the builder of our revolutionary armed forces”. North Korea is believed to be readying a third nuclear test, based on intelligence satellite images and a past pattern of rocket launches followed by tests. “Let us move forward to final victory,” the 20-something leader urged tens of thousands of military and civilians as they applauded his more than 20-minute speech, the first time a North Korean leader has delivered a major public set-piece address.
Thousands of goose-stepping soldiers held up colored cards to spell out Kim Jong-un’s name and the words “strong and prosperous”. The crowd waved artificial pink flowers, celebrating the two dead Kims who ruled the nation in an event that was hosted by one of the country’s top generals, Ri Yong-ho. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency and YTN TV later cited military sources and analysts as saying the North unveiled at the parade a new long-range missile, presumed to be a ballistic missile with a range of to 6,000 km (3,700 miles). The missile appeared to be longer and with a bigger diameter compared with others the North has revealed. “In order to enhance the dignity of Songun (military-first) Chosun (Korea) and to accomplish the task of building a strong and prosperous socialist country, we have to make every effort to reinforce the people’s armed forces,” Kim said.
Given Kim Jong-il’s years of silence, North Korea specialists said the speech was likely another attempt to remind people of happier days under Kim Il-sung, a revered and avuncular figure the new ruler closely resembles. “It shows a new governing style for the Kim Jong-un era,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University’s department of North Korea studies. North Korea departed from its usual practice of not telling its population about embarrassing failures when state television on Friday broadcast news that a rocket had failed to put a satellite into orbit. Critics say that the long-range rocket launch was part of a bid to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to hit the United States.
The state that Kim inherited in December after the death of his father boasts a 1.2 million-strong military but its population of 23 million, many malnourished, supports a puny economy worth just $40 billion annually in purchasing power parity terms, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Analysts say the wretched economy means Kim is tied to the policies of his late father who oversaw the development of the state’s nuclear and missile ambitions. The United States has vowed to prevent North Korea fulfilling those ambitions, although in reality there is little that can be done to one of the most sanctioned nations on earth that is backed diplomatically by China. “We will continue to keep the pressure on them and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with Telemundo, a U.S. television network.
The small economy is matched by North Korea’s limited diplomatic influence. It has few friends other than China, whose strategic interest is in keeping a buffer between it and South Korea which has U.S. military bases. But even China sounded increasingly exasperated in the run-up to Friday’s rocket launch as North Korea ignored its pleas for restraint, despite aid pumped in by Beijing, and its diplomatic protection at bodies like the United Nations. Without real weight in the international arena, North Korea is forced to rely on bluster reinforced by periodic rocket launches, nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, such as one in 2010 when it shelled an island, to get the world to pay attention, analysts say. That is likely to mean it will stick to the same script. In 2009, North Korea followed a failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit with a nuclear test.
Intelligence satellite images showing a tunnel being dug at the site of two previous tests implying that North Korea either wants to remind the world of the possibility, to prompt a return to aid for disarmament talks, or is preparing a test. “Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” said Andre Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University. While North Korea confessed on Friday that its rocket had failed to deliver a satellite into orbit, it also continued to churn out reams of propaganda aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un and his claim to power based on his bloodline. “Kim Jong-un is unlikely to be losing power over the launch, as the elite and the military need his legitimizing and mythical presence in order to pacify the North Korean population,” said Virginie Grzelczyk, a North Korea expert at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.
Kim Kyu-won writes for a North Korean blog that New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stunned observers with a 20-minute speech at a Sunday event in Pyongyang to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birth. Analysts interpreted the speech as a move to show himself as willing to appeal to and communicate directly with the people in his government in an open and public-friendly manner. This contrasts with his father Kim Jong-il, who rarely spoke to the public.
Speaking Sunday morning in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square, Kim declared that the country’s songun (military first) policies would continue for the time being. In the speech, Kim said, “What was once a weak country [North Korea] has now transformed into a political and military power. “If we intend to succeed in the great endeavor of building a strong and prosperous socialist state, our first, second, and third steps are to strengthen the people’s military in every way possible,” Kim continued. Kim also stressed the importance of economic development. “We must tend well to the precious seeds planted by Comrade Kim Jong-il for the sake of building a strong and prosperous nation and improving the peoples’ lives, cultivating them so that they blossom into a glorious reality,” he said.
Regarding inter-Korean relations, Kim said that “anyone who truly wishes for the country’s unification and the peace and prosperity of the Korean people will join hands in working together.” Kim’s approach stood in contrast with those of senior North Korean officials, who tend to read prepared statements in a stiff manner. The leader was seen moving his body throughout the speech. Afterwards, he engaged People’s Army politburo chief Choi Ryong-hae and Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-ho, who had been standing to his left while reviewing the massive military parade, in questions and conversation.
Kim was also seen several times smiling broadly and making large movements with his hands and body. Following the review, he smiled and waved at North Koreans calling out his name as they moved by either side of the seat of honor. During his speech, Kim Jong-un appeared to resemble his deceased grandfather in his tone and mannerisms. In contrast, the only public speech by Kim Jong-il came at a 60th anniversary ceremony for the People’s Army on Apr. 25, 1992, where he called on the people to “glorify the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army.” “It calls to mind Kim Il-sung’s political style, with the openness and the attempt to connect with the public,” said Jang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. “Kim Jong-un is still lacking in charisma and the ‘patriarch’ image, so it looks like he opted for this approach as a way of getting closer to the elite and the public quickly,” Jang added.
Meanwhile, France’s AFP reported in a Sunday article with a Pyongyang dateline that North Korea carried out a large-scale ”Day of the Sun“ (Kim Il-sung‘s birthday) event in spite of last week’s failed rocket launch. The piece quoted foreigners living in Pyongyang as saying that thousands of people had worked at cleaning, building improvement and landscaping in downtown Pyongyang in the two months leading up to the event. The article also quoted Korean Peninsula expert Masao Okonomi, an honorary professor at Japan’s Kyushu University, as saying that North Korea had become the subject of international mockery after inviting large numbers of foreign journalists for its failed rocket launch.
The AP reported that six million North Koreans, or one in four, require food aid, while quoting Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik as saying that the country likely spent $850 million (roughly 964.3 billion won) on the rocket launch. But Yuri Karash, an expert with the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics who is currently visiting Pyongyang, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency in an interview Friday that the rocket development likely cost around $50 million to $60 million (57 billion to 68 billion won), although it was difficult to judge because North Korea does not have a market economy.
The United States policy toward the North has been to support our allies in the region. While North Korea does not yet pose a direct military threat to the United States, it does pose a threat to United States interests in the region. The reality is that U.S. foreign policy is frequently hamstrung by alliances and regional issues but the reality is this. Nothing has worked in dealing with North Korea. Decades of debilitating sanctions have not stopped Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons or rockets. They have them both. Our policy of containment succeeds in one thing, eliminating any conversation or real effort at reforms and change. It’s arguable that current U.S. policy is setting us on a dangerous course toward another potential quagmire on the Korean peninsula and/or a humanitarian crisis that serves no one.
China is not going to support Korean unification under a U.S. supported government and the United States is not about to allow China an even bigger foothold on the contentious Korean peninsula. So what is the answer? A stable Pyongyang allowed to sit at the world table. Economic reforms and a free market that makes it’s current military regime irrelevant. The current course is not working…it never has and to keep pretending we are containing North Korea is a joke that we cannot afford.