Ghost of Kim Jong-il haunts the region

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Mar 21, 2012 - 19:48
  • Updated : Mar 21, 2012 - 19:48
North Korea’s declaration on Friday that it would conduct a satellite test next month proves one thing: Kim Jong-il might be dead, but his ghost still haunts the Korean peninsula.

The announcement was a shock, coming just three weeks after a deal was reached between the United States and North Korea, where Washington agreed to provide 240,000 tons of food aid in return for Pyongyang’s suspension of nuclear and missile testing.

The deal had led to cautious hopes that new leader Kim Jong-un might adopt a more conciliatory approach in Pyongyang’s foreign relations. The third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il, Kim succeeded his father in December after years of careful preparation.

Those hopes are now dashed. The younger Kim appears to be hewing to the same brinkmanship tactics of his father.

“It’s a real slap in the face,” former White House director for Asia policy Victor Cha told the Associated Press. “It undercuts a lot of theories that the young leadership might be different.”

Pyongyang has told its people that the satellite launch will commemorate the 100th birthday of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung, which falls on April 15.

It has even invited “experienced” foreign experts and journalists to the launch. The show of strength and national pride is also likely aimed at keeping the minds of ordinary North Koreans off the country’s economic woes ― and their hunger.

But it’s hard to buy Pyongyang’s argument that the satellite test is for “peaceful” scientific purposes.

It is true that satellite launch rockets and ballistic missiles carry different payloads. But the two share the same missile bodies and engines and lessons gleaned from such launches can be translated into military applications.

Pyongyang has called the satellite rocket the Unha-3, but it is well known that this is derived from the Taepodong-2 class of ballistic missiles launched in 2009. The Taepodong-2 class of missiles is said to have a range of 6,000 km, potentially taking them as far as Alaska and even Singapore.

North Korea also knows full well that satellite launches will attract controversy and opprobrium. In April 2009, it conducted a similar rocket launch resulting in a new round of United Nations sanctions.

No wonder the scheduled test has been roundly condemned by countries such as the U.S., Japan and South Korea. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the announcement highly provocative. Only China sounded a more restrained note, urging all parties to play constructive roles in the bid for peace on the peninsula.

The timing of the test is also provocative ― between April 12 and April 16. That is around the time South Korea holds its parliamentary polls, and about three weeks after the Nuclear Security Summit to be held in Seoul.

The immediate effect of Friday’s announcement would be the collapse of the Feb. 29 deal with the U.S. After all, the food deliveries were contingent on North Korea sticking to a moratorium on missile testing, and it is hard to imagine Washington going ahead.

In the long run, the collapse of the deal would essentially lead the international community back to square one on the North Korea issue ― a stalemate. This would put paid to any hopes of a return to the six-party talks ― between the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas ― for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

More importantly, the scheduled test shows that the spirit of Kim Jong-il is alive and kicking.

In his time, the wily dictator consistently followed a three-step strategy: provide a public spectacle of a nuclear test or missile launch, attract global condemnation, and then propose reconciliation, to be followed by a request for concessions and aid.

To view things in perspective, North Korea’s satellite test in April 2009 marked the beginning of this three-step tactic, with the Feb. 29 deal being the third and last step.

The scheduled satellite test next month appears to be the first step in another vicious circle to try to up the ante to get more aid than that promised by the Feb. 29 deal.

In other words, the same tactics are being used by Kim Jong-un, probably under the tutelage of Jang Song-thaek, the brother-in-law of his late father.

Writes analyst Mark Fitzpatrick from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies: “It is easy to see events now playing out as they did three years ago. The April 15 test launch will undoubtedly provoke a similar rebuke. Given the symbolism of the satellite launch on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, that rebuke will not be worn lightly.

”It would not be too surprising if Pyongyang then abrogated the Leap Day deal and set off another nuclear explosion,“ he added.

Traces of Kim Jong-il’s tactics are already evident in the words of his son. According to North Korean media, Kim Jong-un has vowed to “enter a war” if the country’s enemies try to intercept the rocket.

Clinton has said that the Feb. 29 deal was a modest step but a reminder that the ”world is transforming around us.“ To seal the deal, Washington had retreated from its previous stance, whereby it asserted that it would ”never buy the same horse twice“ when it came to rewarding North Korea for bad behavior. That stance, dubbed ”strategic patience,“ saw Washington waiting for North Korea to change its bad behavior before engaging it in negotiations.

It might be time to re-adopt strategic patience. Let the younger Kim sweat it out as food aid is terminated, and a vise of sanctions starts to bite.

Perhaps in due time, he might reconsider his penchant for his father’s devious strategies.

By William Choong

William Choong ia a correspondent with The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. ― Ed.

(The Straits Times)
(Asia News Network)