Wednesday, April 2, 2008

North Korea Nutshell: Here We Go Again

“Our military will not sit idle until warmongers launch a preemptive strike. Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced preemptive strike begins.”

If nothing else, you can always count on the North Koreans to spice up international diplomacy with some apocalyptic rhetoric. This most recent statement came in response to the South Korea’s top military official commenting that the South would counter-attack against the North’s nuclear sites if the South were to be attacked by nuclear weapons. Normally, these sorts of statements are taken in stride when dealing with North Korea. For example, the North also began threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” back in 1994 and has used the term many other times when discussing U.S. military installation in the South, with no tangible action in either case. But this time, the statements come at a time when nuclear negotiations are at a standstill and tensions between the two Koreas seem to be increasing by the day.

When South Korea elected their new conservative President, North Korea was strangely silent despite the fact that it was clear that 10 years of engagement policy towards the North was coming to an end. First, there was the announcement that the Unification Ministry, which was fairly controversial as the lead agency behind the “Sunshine” policy towards the North, would be closed. This decision was reversed, but it looks as if most of the decision-making towards North Korea will be given to the Foreign Ministry. Later on, after President Lee officially took power, vitally important fertilizer and farm aid to North Korea was delayed while the new government reassessed whether it would offer this aid while nuclear negotiations remained stalled.

That silence has now been broken with statements such as the one above, as well as several actions that seek to initiate a game of brinkmanship. First, the North kicked out 11 South Korean officials from their joint North-South industrial project in Kaesong. Then, the North fired 3 Soviet-era ship to ship missiles and continued a series of jet flyovers near the DMZ border region. When even this type of dangerous behavior did not lead to South Korea to retreat from their new policy path, the North announced that it was considering ending North-South negotiations and slowing down the process of disabling its nuclear reactor even further.

For anyone who has followed U.S.-North Korean negotiations over the last two decades, these types of activities represent a frustrating kind of “standard operating procedure”. Anytime North Korea feels that it is getting a raw deal or having its honor compromised, it will respond with threats and actions that are supposed to put their opponents on the defensive so that the North can move in and issue further demands for a return to normalcy. Hopefully, some resolution can be found to the current stalemate before the North takes even more drastic steps.

Recently, reports concerning new leaks about the Israeli bombing of a base in Syria have begun to surface. David Ignatius of the Washington Post has apparently spoken to a “senior intelligence official” who confirmed to him the nuclear connection between North Korea and the work going on in Syria at that site. For its part, the Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. has obtained a list of nuclear engineers who were “involved in the supple of nuclear technology to Syria, through various intelligence networks.” They claim that Chris Hill showed the list to his North Korea counterpart when they met recently in Geneva. The North Koreans continued to deny any nuclear proliferation to Syria after this meeting.

Although there is still much to be learned about what happened with this incident, I’m still fairly skeptical about reporters that cite unnamed sources. All the governments involved have done a thorough job in keeping information on this event on lock down and there are far too many people with ideological agendas on this issue to simply trust what we find in these reports.

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