Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Possible military provocations for 2011

In the early half of 2011, the Kim dynasty will be particularly prone to flaunt its military hardware as it celebrates three red letter days in close succession: the birthdays of the crown prince, Kim Jong-un, on Jan. 8; the reigning leader, Kim Jong-il, on Feb. 16; and the dynastic founder, Kim Il-sung, on April 15. The Kim clan will probably view it in their strategic best interests to exercise its “sovereign right” and conduct another nuclear test – particularly its first uranium test – before April 15, known throughout the kingdom as the “Day of Sun.”

By thus pitting Seoul and Washington into a corner once again in early 2011, Kim Jong-il could highlight the sacred “Mt. Baekdu” (a mountain with historical symbolism, atop which Kim was purportedly born) revolutionary bloodline of his unproven heir and prompt Presidents Lee and Obama to try to mute his crescendo of aggression with allurements.

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The Kims’ fondness for the “sun” symbol is borne out in both rhetoric and action. Il-sung has long been touted as the “Sun of the Korean Nation,” while Jong-il has been lauded as the “Sun of the 21st Century.” In 1969, the Kims celebrated the “Day of Sun” by shooting down a US reconnaissance plane in international airspace, killing all 31 servicemen on board. Many other attacks and calculated acts of provocation have come on the “Day of Sun” and throughout the week afterward, for reasons of military as well as propaganda value.

Sanctions not concessions for North Korea

Master in timing and manipulation, Pyongyang has won undivided media attention throughout the weekly news cycle by causing a stir on a Sunday, thus putting maximum pressure on its adversary to respond. Examples of such thoughtfulness include: the invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950; the assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung Hee on Jan. 21, 1968; the blowing up of a Korean civilian airliner on Nov. 29, 1987; ballistic missile tests over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998 and April 5, 2009, and the interception of a US reconnaissance plane on March 2, 2003.

The year 2011 is “Juche 100” (juche is the philosophy of "self-reliance") by the North Korean calendar, a retroactive centennial of the state creed. In such a critical year, Kim Jong-il will presumably try his best to burnish Jong-un’s hereditary credentials and cement his own legacy. Kicking off the centennial with a bang on Jong-un’s birthday, a Saturday, would resonate around the world fully throughout the following week. Even if the older Kim passes on this prime opportunity, there will be other auspicious occasions on the horizon on which to test his weapons and test the will of his target nations.

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Out of sheer survival instinct, the Kim regime will continue in the coming weeks to coerce and cajole its adversaries to deliver economic concessions. Now is the winter of Kim Jong-il’s discontent, to be made glorious summer by the sun of Mt. Baekdu. For Seoul and Washington to abet this dynastic succession process with yet another round of concessions would be self-defeating. Rather, they must, when the time comes, negotiate from a position of strength, by tightening sanctions and targeting illicit transactions, thus closing the chapter on the 20-year-old tragedy of errors that has been their North Korea policy.

Sung-Yoon Lee teaches Korean politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is a research fellow at the National Asia Research Program, a joint initiative by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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