Saturday, January 26, 2013

Don't Forget About Us: North Korea's Desire for Relevance

     Over the past week, The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or North Korea), has once again taken a bellicose tone regarding its nuclear and long range missile program.  Stating on Wednesday that it had no intentions of talks with the United States on halting its nuclear and missile weapons programs, the reclusive country also stated that it would enact "physical countermeasures" against South Korea if it took part in any enforcement of recently UN-approved sanctions in response to the DPRK's missile testing.  The statements do not come as a  surprise, however,  as it has become standard procedure for the North to respond to any actions attempted to reign in its actions with its own unique brand of threats and insults.  The DPRK government has  previously stated that they would turn Seoul into a "sea of fire", and that its weapons program is intended to target the United States. The country also has targeted individuals who publicly denounce DPRK actions with seemingly childish rhetoric.  In response to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments regarding the North's  missile test in December, the DPRK responded by stating:

--"Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping"

    While such quips coming from any state's official media outlets should demand some level of attention,  what should the level of concern be for North Korea's most recent statements, and what is behind them?  Judging from its past, they appear to be fueled by two primary motives: consolidation of power and attention.

First, the current Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army Kim Jong-un (he is not the President of the DPRK, as the government hierarchy decided that upon his death in 1994, the country's founder Kim Il-sung would be granted that title for eternity) has been at the helm for little over a year, following the death of Kim Jong-il, his father.  Unlike his father's transition to power, in which Kim Il-Sung had over a decade to shift the power levers in both the government and military apparatuses to allow for Jong-il loyalists to be in place at the time of that transition, the death of Kim Jong-il was rather sudden, and placed the 29-year old Jong-un into power in a rapid fashion.  While many North Korean analysts were hopeful that his exposure to the West through his education in Switzerland, as well as his affinity towards western culture would bring about some liberalization in the country, the primary source of legitimization in the DPRK power structure is to varnish military credentials, thus claiming the right to rule.

      Jong-un, has likely looked to people advising him, such as Jang Song Thaek, who is the husband of his father's younger sister, and Vice Chairman of the National Military Commission, to aid him in the most efficient path of consolidating power in the country.  Historically, in many communist countries, such transitions can take many years, and it is often solidified through garnering the support of the military structure in that country.  In March of 2010, the DPRK launched a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors.  Many saw this attack as Kim Jong-il "throwing a bone" to his military structure, in exchange for their support of his transition attempt with Jong-un.  The recent missile tests, as well as the rhetoric accompanying them, appear to be the Jong-un faction further solidifying their anti-American credentials in order to solidify their support within the North Korean military.

     The other likely motive behind such provocative moves is for the North's need to feel relevant in the international scene.  As much of the region's attention has recently shifted towards increased tension between China and Japan over control of the Senkaku islands, The DPRK has looked to divert attention back to its missile and nuclear program.  The country has also toned down its proclamations during an American Presidential cycle, as it did in 2004 and 2008, while it waited to see the outcome, thus what type of Presidential administration it would be dealing with, before resuming its calculated actions.  It should come as no surprise that the most recent statements coming from Pyongyang occurred mere days after President Obama was sworn in for a second term.  What should be surprising to the country, however, is the unusually stern language that was publicly given by Beijing regarding the latest announcements from North Korea dealing with its continued intention to develop its nuclear and missile program.   It is not known if the primary goal of such missile and nuclear testing in North Korea is to bolster the current regime, or to create a dialogue with the United States and its allies with an anticipation of potential carrots to cease such programs, or perhaps a combination of both, yet one aspect of these developments is certain: The DPRK is unrivaled in its ability to keep the international community guessing.


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