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     Sep 28, 2010
Show and tell time in North Korea
By Donald Kirk

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 real news.

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 your pick.

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 clues.

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

A summit of tensions in Pyongyang (Sep 27, '10)

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2. It's Obama vs infinite war

3. Kyrgyzstan's Rosa at the heart of the matter

4. US and Iran fire salvos at the UN

5. Why the troops are coming home

6. Salami tactics

7. Microscopic hope for US-China space ties

8. China: Energy superpower

9. Black hole of censorship

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(Sep 24-26, 2010)


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