Why it’s a good time to be a dictator like Kim Jong-un

o13-iconJonathan Freedland writes: In the early 1990s, when I was in my infancy as a reporter, the dominant international story was the war in the Balkans. Several of my peers made their names covering that war and were deeply affected by it. What motivated at least a few of them was not the desire simply to be on the front page or lead the evening news, but a passionate urge to let the world know what was happening. Several believed that, if only the world could see what they could see in Bosnia, then it would act.

Perhaps the authors of the latest UN report into human rights in North Korea felt a similar motivation. They can be satisfied that, thanks to their 372-page study, no one now can claim to be ignorant of the horrors committed in that place. They are laid out in stomach-turning detail: the torture, the deliberate starvation, the executions committed in a network of secret prison camps. The individual cases break the heart: the seven-year-old girl beaten to death over a few extra grains of food; the boy whose finger was chopped off for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the factory where he was forced to work; and, most shocking of all, the mother forced to drown her just-born baby in a bowl of water.

The report’s lead author, like those old journalistic colleagues of mine, clearly hopes that now that the evidence is laid out, action will follow. “Now the international community does know,” says retired Australian judge Michael Kirby. “There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

But how confident can Kirby be that action will follow? Any UN plan – even a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court – would hit the immediate obstacle of a Chinese veto in the security council. (China, after all, is implicated in North Korea’s horrors: when people somehow manage to escape across the border, China’s policy is to hand them straight back.)

It’s a similar story in Syria. Less than a month has passed since a report laid out comprehensive evidence of the suffering of detainees at the hands of the Assad regime. That report, like the latest one on North Korea, detailed murder through starvation, beatings and torture – complete with photographs of emaciated bodies. Then, as now, the authors noted chilling echoes of the Nazi crimes of the 1940s. Yet did that report spark a worldwide demand for action, with demonstrations outside parliaments and presidential palaces? It did not. Perhaps mindful that any call for UN action would be blocked by a Russian veto, the chief response was a global shrug. [Continue reading...]

A global shrug, or more specifically a Western shrug?

The intervention in the Balkans had perhaps more to do with the fact that the atrocities were taking place inside Europe, than it was a product of the “responsibility to protect”. There was an enormous reluctance to intervene but the tipping point came when Europe appeared to be witnessing what it had pledged it would never witness again: scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. And even at such a juncture, Europe wasn’t willing to act without the U.S. taking the lead.

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Kim Jong-un’s goal is simply survival

The Guardian reports: At the end of a week in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shattered the illusion that his rule would mark a departure from bellicosity, signs are emerging that there may be method in his apparent madness.

His motivation is not war, but simple regime survival, top-level defectors in the South have told the Guardian. And he wants his future, says one of the regime’s former fundraisers, to be guaranteed by largesse from the same country the North recently threatened with nuclear annihilation: the US.

The 20,000 North Koreans who have made new lives in the South since the end of the Korean war in 1953 are among the few people placed to give reliable insights into a country that often generates more speculative heat thananalytical light.

While they are divided on how far Kim will to go in his campaign to pressure the US and South Korea into offering talks on aid and a peace treaty, they say he is as aware as officials in Washington and Seoul that all-out war and the continuation of his dynasty are mutually exclusive.

“Kim Jong-un’s aim is to unite the North Korean military and people around his regime and win their trust,” said Jang Se-yul, a former mathematics professor who spent 10 years in the cyberwarfare unit of the North Korean army in Pyongyang. “They don’t trust Kim yet, and they’re looking for strong signals from him.”

Jang, who says he talks “two or three times a day” to North Korean workers, soldiers and high-ranking government officials near the Chinese border, where they can receive a mobile phone signal, did not know if Kim’s attempts to endear himself to his people would include military action.

The coming weeks could see more attempts to unsettle the region. Among the options open to Kim are a missile test to mark the 101st anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, or an attack on islands near the disputed North-South maritime border.

What is certain is that the 30-year-old leader will never abandon the North’s nuclear programme, Jang said: “He is like his father [Kim Jong-il], in that he is threatening the US until he wins a concession and can claim he has orchestrated a victory over the enemy. That is exactly what Kim Jong-un is expecting. He knows he’s causing trouble internationally, but if he steps back, he will never win the trust of his people.

“I witnessed huge celebrations after the regime conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Now it won’t let go of the fantasy that having nuclear weapons will make it invincible.”

A credible nuclear deterrent is the first step towards extracting aid and other concessions from the US and repairing the damage UN sanctions have inflicted on an already fragile economy. [Continue reading...]

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Embassies staying put in North Korea despite tension

Reuters reports: Staff at embassies in North Korea appeared to be remaining in place on Saturday despite an appeal by authorities in Pyongyang for diplomats to consider leaving because of heightened tension after weeks of bellicose exchanges.

North Korean authorities told diplomatic missions they could not guarantee their safety from next Wednesday – after declaring that conflict was inevitable amid joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises due to last until the end of the month.

Whatever the atmosphere in Pyongyang, the rain-soaked South Korean capital, Seoul, was calm. Traffic moved normally through the city centre, busy with Saturday shoppers.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a government official as saying diplomats were disregarding the suggestion they might leave the country.

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Cear signs that China is losing patience with North Korea

The Telegraph reports: There are clear signs that China is losing patience with North Korea, America’s former top diplomat in Asia has said.

For several decades, China has been North Korea’s closest ally, largest trade partner and primary source of aid.

However, Kurt Campbell, the former head of the State department in Asia, said there are signs that a relationship once described by Chairman Mao to be “as close as lips and teeth” is wearing thin.

“There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy. Over the short to medium term, that has the potential to affect the calculus in north east Asia,” Mr Campbell said at a forum at John Hopkins university.

“You have seen it at the United Nations (Security Council). We have seen it in our private discussions and you see it in statements in Beijing,” he added.

Mr Campbell, who left the State department in February to found his own consultancy firm, was one of the architects of the US diplomatic and military “pivot” towards Asia.

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What war on the Korean peninsula would look like

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin writes: The Korean Peninsula is on a knife’s edge, one fateful step from war. While Koreans are accustomed to periodic spikes in tensions, the risk of renewed hostilities appears higher than at any time in the past 60 years, when American, North Korean, and Chinese generals signed an armistice agreement. Far more than 1 million people died in the Korean War, with at least that many troops and civilians injured over the course of the three-year campaign.

The exact leadership dynamics at play in Pyongyang remain mysterious, but the domestic survival of the Kim family dynasty appears to hinge on maintaining a credible nuclear and missile threat — backed up by a local great power, China. To achieve the former, Kim Jong Un appears willing to risk the latter. His regime’s unrelenting verbal threats are intended to rally domestic support, and its reckless brinksmanship is aimed at forcing the outside world to back down and back off. In the past days and weeks — adding to the tension created by its recent nuclear and missile tests — Pyongyang has severed a hotline with Seoul, renounced the 1953 armistice, conducted cyberattacks, and, against its own financial interests, closed down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which is the only economic thread holding together relations with the South.

There is no single red line that, when crossed, would trigger war, but the potential for miscalculation and escalation is high. North Korea has a penchant for causing international incidents — in 2010 alone it used a mini-submarine to sink the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. The brazen and unprovoked killing of military personnel and civilians shocked many South Koreans, some of whom faulted then-President Lee Myung Bak for a tepid response. The new president, Park Geun Hye (South Korea’s “Iron Lady”) is determined not to echo that weakness and has vowed a strong response to any direct provocation. Meanwhile, the United States, via the annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises, has many troops, ships, and planes on maneuvers in the region and, as an additional show of resolve, flew long-range B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to Korea and dispatched F-22 fighter jets as well.

The desire to show strength, the fear of looking weak, and the presence of tons of hardware provides more than enough tinder that a spark could start a peninsula-wide conflagration. [Continue reading...]

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North Korea ‘moves mid-range missile’

BBC News reports: North Korea has shifted a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast, South Korea’s foreign minister says.

Kim Kwan-jin played down concerns that the missile could target the US mainland, and said the North’s intentions were not yet clear.

Pyongyang earlier renewed threats of a nuclear strike against the US, though its missiles are not believed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The US is responding to North Korea by moving missile defence shields to Guam.

The Pentagon said the shield on its Pacific island territory would be ready within weeks, adding to warships already sent to the area.

The North has previously named Guam among a list of possible targets for attack that included Hawaii and the US mainland.

Japanese and South Korea reports had suggested the missile being moved by the North was a long-range one with a capability of hitting the US west coast.

However, experts believe the North’s most powerful rocket, which it test-fired last December, has a range of 6,000km (3,700 miles) and can reach no further than Alaska.

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Today’s tunes from North Korea

First, a family-favorite, “We are ready for nuclear war,” followed by the six-year-old Ko Pyong Sim performing “Footsteps.”

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How the Obama administration ignored North Korean offers to relinquish its nuclear fuel stockpile

Joel Wit writes: [I]n November 2010, senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials made it very clear that they were willing to relinquish thousands of fuel rods in their possession that could have been used by the reactor, rods that could help produce as many as eight nuclear bombs. That would have been a first step toward permanently disabling the facility, making sure the reactor would never again be a threat. Of course, the North Koreans wanted compensation — standard practice in the international nuclear fuel industry — and they wanted more than the rods were worth. But that was clearly their opening position. The offer was repeated during meetings in March 2011 in Berlin and once again in Pyongyang at the end of that year.

Each time, the North Korean proposal was dutifully reported to the Obama administration in briefings for the White House, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. The Lee Myung-bak administration was familiar with the offer, as they would have been intimately involved in any effort to shut Yongbyon down because Lee’s predecessor had been willing to pay for the rods to take them off North Korea’s hands.

The North Korean initiative was duly noted, but the United States and South Korea failed to take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that North Korea wasn’t able to restart the reactor and turn the rods into new nuclear bombs. [Continue reading...]

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North Korea warns U.S. of approval for ‘lighter’ nuclear attack

Bloomberg reports: North Korea’s military escalated its threats, citing a law ratified this week as authorizing plans for “counter-actions” against U.S. aggression, including use of a “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike.”

Kim Jong Un’s regime, which hasn’t demonstrated it has a nuclear weapon or a missile capable of delivering one to the U.S. mainland, didn’t elaborate on the armaments it claimed to have in a statement today by a military spokesman, which was distributed by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The warning was presented as a response to what North Korea called an “ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy,” citing moves including the use of long-range bombers in a U.S.-South Korea exercise being conducted this month. While tensions have escalated over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and United Nations sanctions against it, U.S. officials have emphasized this week that they have seen no unusual troop movements by North Korea.

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U.S. dials back on Korean show of force

The Wall Street Journal reports: After a high-visibility display of military power aimed at deterring North Korean provocations, the White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. is putting a pause to what several officials described as a step-by-step plan the Obama administration approved earlier this year, dubbed “the playbook,” that laid out the sequence and publicity plans for U.S. shows of force during annual war games with South Korea. The playbook included well-publicized flights in recent weeks near North Korea by nuclear-capable B-52 and stealth B-2 bombers, as well as advanced F-22 warplanes.

The U.S. stepped back from the plans this week, as U.S. officials began to worry that the North, which has a small nuclear arsenal and an unpredictable new leader, may be more provoked than the U.S. had intended, the officials said.

“The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations,” a senior administration official said.

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Conflict with North Korea could go nuclear

At Foreign Affairs, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press write: As North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un issues increasingly over-the-top threats — including intimations that he might launch nuclear strikes against the United States — officials in Washington have sought to reassure the public and U.S. allies. North Korea, they say, may initiate cyberattacks or other limited provocations, but the leaders in Pyongyang wish to survive, so they are highly unlikely to do anything as foolhardy as using nuclear weapons.

Despite those assurances, however, the risk of nuclear war with North Korea is far from remote. Although Pyongyang’s tired threats are probably bluster, the current crisis has substantially increased the risk of a conventional conflict — and any conventional war with North Korea is likely to go nuclear. Washington should continue its efforts to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula. But equally important, it must rapidly take steps — including re-evaluating U.S. war plans — to dampen the risks of nuclear escalation if conventional war erupts.

Ironically, the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength. If war erupted, the North Korean army, short on training and armed with decrepit equipment, would prove no match for the U.S.–South Korean Combined Forces Command. Make no mistake, Seoul would suffer some damage, but a conventional war would be a rout, and CFC forces would quickly cross the border and head north.

At that point, North Korea’s inner circle would face a grave decision: how to avoid the terrible fates of such defeated leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Kim, his family, and his cronies could try to escape to China and plead for a comfortable, lifelong sanctuary there — an increasingly dim prospect given Beijing’s growing frustration with Kim’s regime. Pyongyang’s only other option would be to try to force a cease-fire by playing its only trump card: nuclear escalation. [Continue reading...]

“Thermonuclear war will be our only option” is the title for this North Korean state television broadcast posted on YouTube on March 27. The English voiceover is barely any louder than the presenter’s Korean, so it’s a bit hard to follow. The second video it titled “Worker-Peasant Red Guards Members Ready for All-out Action” and is partially subtitled and was posted April 2.

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North Korea says it will restart reactor to expand nuclear arsenal

The New York Times reports: North Korea announced plans on Tuesday to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor, the latest in a series of provocations by its leader, Kim Jong-un, to elicit a muted response from American officials, who believe they can wait out Mr. Kim’s threats until he realizes his belligerent behavior will not force South Korea or the United States to make any concessions.

“Right now, they’re testing the proposition that we’ll choose peace and quiet, and put it on our MasterCard,” said a senior American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal calculations. “When they get through this cycle, they will have gotten no return on their investment.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, using time-tested diplomatic language, said North Korea’s plan to restart the reactor would be a “provocative act” that is “a direct violation of their international obligations.” Speaking in Washington after his first meeting with South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, Mr. Kerry reaffirmed the determination of the United States to defend its ally.

American officials still worry about the consequences of any miscalculation, given the hair-trigger tensions on the Korean Peninsula and Mr. Kim’s inexperience at this type of brinkmanship. The top American commander in South Korea, Gen. James D. Thurman, described the situation as “tense” and “volatile” in an interview with ABC News.

But the senior official predicted that North Korea would eventually back down, as Mr. Kim’s need for food aid and hard currency outweighed the domestic political gains from his threats to shoot missiles at American cities. [Continue reading...]

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Kim Jong Un is not crazy

Stephan Haggard writes: March brought us a series of what pundits like to call “provocations” by North Korea. On closer inspection, Pyongyang has opted for rhetoric over actual military actions.

While Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear and missile capability remains worrisome, escalating signals of resolve could suggest nervousness as much as strength.

So, is the regime in trouble?

The first round of saber-rattling came as the U.N. Security Council deliberated on a new sanctions resolution after North Korea’s satellite launch in December and its third nuclear test in February. The Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a party organ dealing with North-South relations began putting out public statements in an effort to chip away at the institutions of the armistice, such as military hot lines and the stationing of a North Korean military mission in Panmunjom.

North Korea ultimately “withdrew” from the armistice, but it had done so before and it is not clear what its recent statements actually mean. The armistice is not a peace treaty, but merely a cease fire. The armistice is stable not because of verbal commitments but because of the deterrent capability of both sides. [Continue reading...]

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North Korea delays South Koreans entry to Kaesong industrial park

AFP reports: North Korea on Wednesday delayed the entry of South Koreans to a joint industrial complex in a rare move amid high tensions on the Korean peninsula, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

“North Korea has not yet given us the daily permission for the entry of 484 South Koreans into Kaesong today,” a South Korean Unification Ministry spokeswoman told AFP.

The border crossing usually takes place at 8:30 am (2330 GMT), but there has been no word from the North’s officials for almost an hour, she said.

The delay sparked fears the North could carry out its threatened shutdown of the Seoul-invested industrial estate, which has continued to run during previous crises on the peninsula.

Border crossings for Kaesong, which lies 10 kilometres (six miles) inside North Korea, have been functioning normally despite soaring tensions in recent weeks between the North and the South.

The operating stability of the complex is seen as a bellwether of inter-Korean relations, and its closure would mark a clear escalation of tensions beyond all the military rhetoric.

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Washington’s failure to diffuse tensions on the Korean peninsula

The Wall Street Journal reports: American defense officials are vowing additional displays of advanced U.S. military might as they continue joint maneuvers with South Korea in the midst of growing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Defense officials declined to detail their next steps, citing operational security concerns. But a new show of force would come after a pair of B-2 bombers flew over South Korea on Thursday and dropped dummy munitions. Earlier this month, U.S. B-52s flew over the peninsula.

The assertive U.S. response came in an intensifying exchange of threats and oaths with North Korea and as Russia and China appealed for calm. U.S. officials are seeking to dissuade Pyongyang from rash steps while assuring allies that, if necessary, American force would be used to defend them.

Pentagon officials said they expected to see still-more-heated rhetoric from North Korea. With joint U.S.-South Korean exercises scheduled to last for about 45 more days, there also will be additional demonstrations of American firepower.

“The United States will continue to demonstrate unique advanced capabilities as these exercises continue,” said a defense official.

Although the use of U.S. heavy bombers risks provoking the North into a dangerous miscalculation, U.S. officials believe the joint exercises with South Korea ultimately will have a stabilizing effect.

Robert Mackey interviewed B. R. Myers, a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in South Korea who said:

We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says, “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes. I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first 10 minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.

The regime is exploiting the tension to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now under way on the east coast. Workers are shown with clenched fists, spluttering at the U.S. and South Korea, and vowing to work extra hard as a way of venting their rage.

It is all very similar to last year’s sustained vilification of South Korea’s then-president, Lee Myung-bak, when you had miners saying that they imagined Lee’s face on the rocks they were breaking, and so on. The regime can no longer fire up people with any coherent or credible vision of a socialist future, so it tries to cast the entire work force — much as other countries do in times of actual war — as an adjunct to the military. Work places are “battlegrounds,” and all labor strengthens the country for the final victory of unification, etc.

So, given these domestic reasons for North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and given that it’s threats are all retaliatory threats, why should the U.S. respond with displays of American might? It seems like the U.S. itself is trapped in its own knee jerk reactions and a fabricated need to assume a military posture where none is required.

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Video: North Korea to suspend nuclear activities

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