The winter of Kim Jong-il's discontent
As Kim Jong-il's struggles to hold onto a crumbling North Korea, the US and South Korea can expect more calculated provocations – even displays of nuclear power. But rather than appease Kim with diplomatic concessions, now is the time to exploit those weaknesses with smart sanctions.
Riding the wave of missile-and-nuclear tests in 2009, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il capped 2010 with a much-anticipated crowning of his third son as heir and two deadly assaults on his southern neighbor – the sinking of a warship in March and the shelling of an inhabited island in November.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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By beating against South Korea's shore, Mr. Kim expects to reap in 2011 the fruits of his extortionist labor. His new year’s wishes are not entirely misplaced, as such has been the basic dynamic of inter-Korean relations the past dozen years: a potent formula of provocation-and-concession constantly applied by the North, and an infant formula of appeasement-or-war uniformly accepted by the South.
As time runs out on the tenure of both Presidents Lee Myung Bak and Barack Obama, the temptation to take the North Korean bait will probably grow, not diminish. But Mr. Lee and Mr. Obama should not be so hasty to react to Kim’s calculated provocations. In actuality, now is the winter of Kim’s discontent. He must contend with the collective weight of a nearly two decade-old food catastrophe, increasing influx of information, and outflux of citizens across the border. Add to that another hereditary communist power transition (to his son, Kim Jong-un), and the growing reality that even in the case of a leader-for-life, death will have its day.
Now is the time to constrict the Kim regime by exploiting these weaknesses rather than legitimating the regime with more concessionary diplomacy. Negotiations, in order to be effective, must be buttressed with sustained sanctions (pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1874) and crackdown on North Korea’s multifarious illicit financial transactions. To relax these measures in return for empty promises of good behavior would be a folly of the first degree.
The problems Kim Jong Il faces
In the past, Kim could bide his time in dealing with leaders of democracies who came and went via elections. He was unencumbered by a South Korean or American leader’s short-term political need to pull off a “legacy” in the form of a paper agreement with North Korea. Such a luxury is no longer available today to the sixty-nine-year-old Kim who is a recovering stroke patient.
As Kim’s minutes hasten to their end, his immediate future appears littered with unprecedented uncertainties: the exact time, scale, and duration of concessionary diplomacy from a more restrained Seoul and Washington; the ever-increasing defection of his own hungry people to the Korean state south of the border; his youthful heir’s unproven qualities, and the palpable inevitability of his own mortality.
Manufacturing myths for son Kim Jung Un
Kim’s designation of his son, Jung-un, at age 26, as a four-star general and vice chairman of the communist party’s Central Military Committee in September indicates the imprudent impulses of an impatient patient. In the near term, the assumption of power by the "Young General" is likely to be achieved unchallenged. But this entails the continual manufacturing of myths to support the unseasoned successor’s military leadership credentials.
Thus, Kim Jong Il will employ his time-tested formula of military provocations and ballistic-missile and nuclear tests, alongside conciliatory calls for “peace talks” with Washington. In Kim’s eyes, it is he who wields both the carrot and stick. Kim views his adversary as the asinine, reactive party to be tamed.