SEOUL - The timing could hardly be better. On Monday, the day before North
Korea stages its first party conference in 44 years, United States and South
Korean ships are flexing their muscles in anti-submarine exercises in the
Yellow Sea near where the South Korean corvette Cheonan was torpedoed
and sunk in March.
And that's not all. North Korean forces are in their final paces for a big show
in Pyongyang featuring not just the usual tanks, artillery and goose-stepping
soldiers but possibly the vaunted missiles with which the North threatens
targets near and far. The North could even show off one of its long-range
Taepodong missiles, the kind that can carry a warhead as far as Hawaii, Alaska,
or even the US West coast, but mid- and short-range versions may well be on
parade along with the pads from which they're launched.
In other words, opposing forces are steaming and strutting their
stuff in displays that no one thinks will lead to war - not now, maybe not ever
- but definitely show the depth of North-South hostility 60 years after the
Korean War was boiling to its bloody climactic period in late 1950.
The conflux of war games and party conference is sure to spark a blitzkrieg of
rhetoric from Pyongyang, but the question is how much more we'll know about
what's happening in North Korea behind the smokescreen of verbiage. One thing
is certain: if Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's son Kim Jong-un so much as shows a
shadow of himself, standing anywhere on a stage or reviewing proceedings with
his father and an inner circle of military and party leaders, that will be
enough to confirm all we've been reading about his rise as heir presumptive to
the throne his father has held since inheriting power from his father, Kim
Il-sung, in 1994.
The event is not a party congress, something last held in Pyongyang in 1980
when Kim Jong-il was anointed as his father's successor, but it's if anything
more exciting if only because Kim Jong-un is such a man of mystery. He is just
a kid, 27 years old, and he hasn't been caught on camera, for public
consumption, for more than a decade when he appeared with a bunch of classmates
in a group photo at the elite school that he attended in Switzerland.
Kim Jong-un appears on a fast track for power, however, if only because his
father has looked increasingly frail the few times he's been photographed of
late, most recently during his trip in late August to northeastern China, where
he again met China's President Hu Jintao. Pictures clearly showed father Kim's
left arm drooping stiffly while he walked - evidence of the stroke he suffered
in August 2008. He's also suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and a
kidney ailment that requires dialysis three times a week, a confluence of
illnesses that mean he could go any time.
Kim Jong-il would want to hang on until the 100th anniversary on April 15,
2012, of the birth of Kim Il-sung, an event that promises to be about the
biggest extravaganza in North Korean history, but just in case fate intervenes
he will need the kid to be ready. Jong-eun has already been an "inspector",
whatever that means, for the National Defense Commission, over which his father
rules as chairman, but he should also be in line for a party position, whether
on the central committee or the presidium.
There is no guarantee he'll get it, but the hoopla surrounding Tuesday's event
is such that it would be a disappointment if we didn't get at least a nugget of
In the meantime, the timing of the US and South Korean war games is uncanny -
either a brilliant stroke of defiance of North Korea and China, which really do
not like such things going on in the Yellow Sea, or a rather clumsy gesture
that would seem like a needless assault on North Korean sensitivities. Take
The flotilla, led by the USS John McCain, a destroyer equipped with the
latest missile-seeking - and destroying - Aegis system, began maneuvering in
the Yellow Sea at 7 am on Monday, even as North Korean soldiers were
maneuvering into position for Tuesday's festivities.
For the North Koreans, however, the greatest uncertainty may be how to prop up
the Dear Leader long enough to wave at his followers as no one sees much chance
that he'll appear before the crowds watching the parade.
The problem, according to recent anonymous reports via cellphone contacts
inside North Korea, is that he's getting increasingly drowsy - and now has a
tendency simply to nod off without much warning. The best guess for why the
conference had to be postponed is that he was to fatigued, and possibly ill,
after the exertions of his trip to northeastern China, to appear in public.
There is also a theory that Kim Jong-il had to settle differences among his
followers about the wisdom of promoting his third son as his successor, but
analysts cite one good reason why this was not the case. The elite around the
apex of power in Pyongyang would for now prefer to be able to unite around one
prince of the realm rather than risk losing jobs, and lives, in internecine
strife that might severely weaken if not destroy the whole ruling structure.
Under these circumstances, generals who might want to show their toughness
against the Americans will have to settle for spewing out sound and fury and
not much more. The movements of 10 US and South Korean warships, including two
American destroyers, an ocean surveillance ship, a fast-attack submarine and
sub-chasing aircraft should provide fine video to complement whatever comes out
of Pyongyang, but that's about it.
North Korea at this stage, far from spoiling for war, needs a respite. North
Korean negotiators are asking the South Koreans to resume tours to the Mount
Kumkang region, suspended by South Korea after the wanton shooting of a South
Korean housewife by a North Korean soldier in July 2008, and are desperate for
aid. South Korea is complying with a promise to ship 5,000 tons of rice - a
donation that the North has criticized as too small.
Most significantly, North Korea has promoted three veterans of nuclear
negotiations to higher positions. Kang Sok-ju, formerly vice foreign minister,
is now vice premier of the cabinet; Kim Gye-gwan, a deputy foreign minister, is
now vice foreign minister in place of Kang; Ri Yung-ho, Kim's deputy, is a
deputy foreign minister. These changes underline North Korea's desire to return
to long-suspended six-party talks on its nuclear weapons.
No one expects North Korea to live up to its promises, in agreements reached in
2007, to give up its nukes, but a return to talks would provide a relief from
the recriminations of the past two years. Talks would also give some breathing
room for Kim Jong-il - and his son.
Quite soon, Kim Jong-eun may find himself the leader of one of the world's
nuclear powers. No one knows how he will respond to that challenge - whether he
will want to reconcile with foes or show his toughness. The party conference,
if it fails to give real answers to much of anything, may at least provide some