It never is wise to discount renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula, despite the latest brinkmanship showing a familiar pattern. If the military moves had happened in Kim Jong-il’s time, there was a reasonable predictability of a de-escalation after he was sure he had gained concessions from his interlocutors. But his young son, an enigma, now supposedly calls the shots ― and it could make all the difference.
No one can claim to know if Kim Jong-un is the dominant strategist, or if he is being coached by a regency council, or thinks he is war-gaming on PlayStation. The price of uncertainty is the extraordinary logistical preparations the United States has undertaken to protect its forward bases in the Pacific, and South Korea’s warning of a “proportional” response if the North launched probing attacks. Miscalculation is a word seldom uttered with more apocalyptic dread in these conditions.
Kim must check himself. If he understands nuances half as well as he does gamesmanship, America’s decision to delay an intercontinental missile test might be seen as balancing off an ill-considered show of force when it sent bombers on dummy runs over the peninsula.
Chinese President Xi Jinping followed up with a reprimand that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” It almost certainly was a signal to all parties, not just Pyongyang, that the posturing had gone far enough. Specifically, Kim should ponder which side his bread is buttered. For all the ratcheting up, however, there is an expectation tensions could begin to ease if April 15 passes without incident. That is the centenary of North Korea’s titular founder Kim Il-sung.
Countries associated with the six-party talks could next consider reviving the process to steer North Korea towards economic reconstruction, alongside the troublesome denuclearisation issue. The U.S. will need persuading, though. Pyongyang suspending operations in the Kaesong industrial park this week was a bad move as, over time, endemic poverty would hamper prospects of promoting stability in North Asia more than military gestures would. Seoul’s new leadership should persuade Pyongyang to keep Gaeseong open as a model for economic zones elsewhere, including the Chinese border region where potential is greatest.
The reinstatement of Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju, who led tentative market reforms under Kim Jong-il, could be the internal opening China needs to guide its neighbor towards improving the lives of its people, and away from military adventurism. Fostering an interest in economic growth could make a difference to the nation.
(The Straits Times)
(Asia News Network)