COMMENT Course correction costs Korea dearly
By Joseph R DeTrani
It's time for North Korea to change course; to cease threats and confrontation and seek meaningful dialogue. Threats to use nuclear weapons to pre-emptively attack the US and to make Seoul a sea of flames have resulted in further distrust and disdain for a leadership in Pyongyang that doesn't understand the US and the international community; doesn't understand how its behavior is not in the interest of China and Russia, their valuable strategic partners.
The leadership thought their threats would result in concessions and capitulation. How wrong they were. What Pyongyang did succeed in doing, however, was to further damage its international reputation and credibility, with all nations.
When Kim Jong-eun initially succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, there undoubtedly was hope that the young Kim
would bring change to a North Korea in need of economic reform and international legitimacy. His first few months were positive.
He replaced many of his father's hardline loyalists, including the minister of Defense, Kim Yong-chun; the Korean People's Army (KPA) Chief of Staff, Ri Yong-ho; the Minister of State Security, U Dong-chuk and others. He appointed a Korean Workers Party official, Ch'oe Ryong-hae, as the new Director of the General Political Department of the KPA, putting a Party official in charge of the military.
Most important, however, was the elevation of his uncle, Jang Song-taek, Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, as one of his most trusted advisors - going literally from number 19 in the leadership pecking order to number two. Jang, who's married to Kim Jong-eun's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, has traveled often to China and is reported to be a more moderate official, interested in economic reform.
After North Korea's April 2012 failed launch of a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, Kim Jong-eun apparently reversed course, touting the Military First policy of his father and reinstating conservative military leaders.
Kim continued down this path, with the December 2012 missile launch that put a satellite in orbit and the February 2013 nuclear test that Pyongyang claimed was of a small nuclear device. The UN sanctions that followed and the yearly joint ROK-US military exercise in April 2013, reportedly incited Pyongyang to adapt an even more aggressive policy of confrontation with the US and South Korea.
The rhetoric from Pyongyang was disturbing, going way beyond previous vitriolic statements, threatening the US with nuclear weapons. On April 10, Chinese media was openly critical of Pyongyang's behavior, noting that North Korea's war-threatening tactics were meaningless, claiming their brinksmanship policy would put North Korea on an abnormal path, with its international environment deteriorating and its internal unity depending more and more on confrontation with the outside world, leaving less room for its leaders to maneuver, thus making it harder for North Korea engage with the outside world.
A second Chinese article on the same day warned North Korea not to misjudge the situation, stating that North Korea was responsible for the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula since last year, stating clearly that China will not allow North Korea to continue to willfully upset peace and stability in the region. And on April 10, Chinese media reported that the Chinese government suspended tourism to North Korea and suspended all scheduled charter flights. Most recently, the Bank of China said it was halting transactions from North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank.
Hopefully, Kim Jong-eun is now prepared to reverse course; to cease any further escalation and return to meaningful negotiations that will address North Korea's security needs and demand for a peace treaty, in the context of denuclearization negotiations. North Korea's allies, China and Russia, would welcome this development, as would an international community interested in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
A good first step would be a decision by Kim Jong-eun, for humanitarian reasons, to grant amnesty to Kenneth Bae and allow for his immediate release and return to the United States.
Joseph R DeTrani is the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit. He formerly was the director of the National Center, the Mission Manager for North Korea and the special envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea. These are the views of the author and not the views of any government agency or department.