North Korea: Latest rant could be tied to political transition

North Korea accused the US Monday of aggressive military moves in the zone separating the two Koreas. The North is undergoing a leadership transition.

Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP
North Korea: Tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied in their capital to condemn the US and South Korea on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, in this June 25 photo.

North Korea’s latest fustigations – on Monday, it accused the US of aggressive military moves in the zone separating the two Koreas – are best heard as the defensive posturing of a regime in political transition, experts on the reclusive state say.

Get used to such hyperbolic rants, these experts add, since a transition of power from the ailing Kim Jong-il is expected to stretch over the coming months.

Before Monday’s declaration, the North Korean regime threatened to ramp up production of nuclear weaponry. This was in response to the Group of Eight leaders’ condemnation this past weekend of the North’s recent sinking of a South Korean warship.

“When any country goes through a leadership transition, but particularly in the case of one-man-rule like North Korea’s, the tendency is to pull back, hunker down, and offer displays of strength,” says Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program in Cambridge. “They are rallying people around the flag at a delicate moment,” he adds, “and we shouldn’t expect it to stop tomorrow.”

It’s not just that a new generation of young military officers has been pressing for a more aggressive approach to the United States and the rest of the outside world as rumors build of an ailing Mr. Kim. (Some analysts cite the March sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan as just such an act.) As Mr. Walsh notes, the North’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party has announced a major meeting for September – an event that could also cause the regime to offer more chest thumping.

Monday’s warning from Pyongyang over what it claimed was movement by the US of “heavy weapons” into the demilitarized-zone “truce village” of Panmunjom was the kind of “provocation” that CIA Director Leon Panetta said Sunday was par for the course from a “rogue regime.”

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Panetta said recent actions by the North – including the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died – could be seen as Kim trying to establish the leadership bona fides of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un – in particular with the military.

“The skirmishes that are going on are in part related to trying to establish credibility for the son,” Panetta said. “And that makes it a dangerous period.”

That may make this seem like exactly the wrong time for diplomatic overtures to Pyongyang. Indeed, the United Nations Security Council is expected to follow up on the G8 leaders’ condemnatory statement over the Cheonan with its own tough statement. President Obama says he wants the Council to produce a “crystal-clear acknowledgment” of the North’s act – something that Beijing, a Pyongyang ally, seems less prone to do. (For its part, North Korea denies involvement in the sinking.)

Some members of Congress have even called for North Korea to be reinstated on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Bush administration dropped North Korea from the list in October 2008. But the State Department said Monday that, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would evaluate the North’s recent actions, the Cheonan incident was not likely to trigger a return to the list.

“As a general matter, a state military attack on a military target would not be considered an act of international terrorism,” the State Department Office of the Spokesman said in a statement Monday.

Yet as counterintuitive as it may seem, says Walsh of MIT, this may in fact be the moment to initiate a calming diplomatic dialogue with the North – so that Pyongyang’s urge to show some muscle doesn’t get out of hand.

“People talk about the wisdom of our current policy of ‘strategic patience,’ and that might be a good policy in the abstract,” he says of the current US approach, which calls for waiting out the North’s period of political transition. “But I’m beginning to worry about strategic patience when Kim Jong Il could die at any moment. If a train is heading for a wreck,” he adds, “just sitting on the train and doing nothing is not a good idea.”


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