Steel lies behind Pyongyang's war
rhetoric By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - The job of a journalist for the
North Korean propaganda machine surely must be one
of the more fun-filled gigs in the media business.
Imagine the laughs the writers up there must be
having as they dream up fresh turns of phrase with
which to pillory South Korea's President Lee
"The mischief made by rat-like
Lee Myung-bak reminds one of a rabid dog barking
towards the sky," goes one of the lines churned
out by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency
(KCNA). Then, as if the "rabid dog" image were not
compelling enough, the next sentence mangles the
metaphor by calling Lee's utterances "no more than
squeaks made by the rat before being killed by all
people for its wrong doings".
take special pleasure in coming up with new ways
to let readers know the
bad things that will befall "rat-like Lee and his
group" as they "meet the most miserable and
disgraceful end for doing such mischief in rat
holes as defaming the sun".
defamation was to besmirch "the Day of the Sun" -
the great day celebrating the centennial on April
15 of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The North Korean
machine can't seem to get over Lee's practical
words of advice - that the North give up the
collective farming that's throttling production -
and his reminder that the money invested in the
birthday party and the launch two days earlier of
the rocket that plunged into the Yellow Sea would
have fed the North's hungry people for years.
"The time has come when we should show in
actuality the might of our armed forces to the Lee
Myung-bak swarm of rats hell-bent on hideous
wrongdoings," an officer named Kim Myong-chol is
quoted as saying. "I am eager to join the special
action group to cut off the head of rattish
In case beheading the South
Korean president will not suffice, the officer
pleaded to be able "to bury those disgusting rats
in the South Sea once a sacred war starts". But
what's stopping him? A mere word from Kim
Jong-eun, it seems, is all the brave soldiers
need. "Supreme Commander, please give us an
order," the officer begged.
chortling over the florid prose wafting from the
North, Pyongyang-watchers are less than amused by
the implications of whatever the North may have in
mind. Are "special action" teams really on alert
awaiting "an order" from Kim Jong-eun to go to war
or at least to stage a surprise attack reminiscent
of those two incidents in the Yellow Sea in 2010 -
the sinking of the navy ship the Cheonan
and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island - which
together killed 50 people?
here is, yes, the rhetoric is more than mere
rhetoric, especially when accompanied by the
reference to "the order" that Kim Jong-eun has the
power to pass on down a chain of command that's
been carefully reorganized while he was confirmed
as both first secretary of the Workers' Party and
first chairman of the National Defense Commission.
The name that counts most is Choe
Ryeong-hae, a civilian who vaulted to the top of
the military heap as a vice marshal in charge of
the general political bureau and vice chairman of
the party's central military commission under Kim
Jong-eun. Actual orders, however, have to go via
Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of the general
staff of the Korean People's Army, meaning all 1.2
million members of the armed forces, who's also
vice chairman of the central military commission.
Ri seemed to be engaging in more than idle
threats when he suggested yet another way to
annihilate the apostates from the South, vowing on
the 80th anniversary of the armed forces to "cut
off the windpipes" of those guilty of inciting
"sacred war". In the same speech, he appeared to
talking about the North's development of a
long-range missile that could theoretically
deliver a nuclear warhead as far as the US west
coast when he claimed the North in "a single blow"
could deal a devastating defeat on the United
How the career soldiers get along
with the civilians is far from clear, but Choe is
believed especially close to Pyongyang's power
couple, Kim Kyong-hui, younger sister of the late
Kim Jong-il, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek,
both of whom were named generals by Kim well
before he died in December. Auntie Kyong-hui is a
party secretary while Uncle Jang is a vice
chairman of the National Defense Commission, the
apparatus that controls all the ministries.
While no one seems to have a real fix on
the power games these people play among each
other, no one doubts the leadership in Pyongyang
has something very unpleasant in mind regardless
of whether Kim Jong-eun is the real leader or he's
ruling behind a clique of faithful factotums who
owe their power to his father's dying wishes.
"We're going to see more provocations, a
nuclear test or something more conventionally
directed," said Victor Cha, who served on the
National Security Council under former president
George W Bush.
Cha, who runs the Korea
program at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington, had no doubt
the South Koreans would respond forcefully to
attack. Memories of the failure to answer in kind
to the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island or the
sinking of the Cheonan run deep.
"The next time they do something
conventional, said Cha at a forum here sponsored
by the Asan Institute, an enormously wealthy think
tank financed by elements of the Hyundai empire,
"the ROK [South Korea, the Republic of Korea] is
not going to sit back and take it."
Intelligence analyst Ken Gause, author of
books and articles on the North Korean leadership,
is also convinced the North's military planners
are up to something. "In the past couple days the
special operations command" - a new term to
Pyongyang-watchers - "has been very very
belligerent," he said at the same forum.
Gause believes "the idea of the dignity
and sovereignty of North Korea" is the motivating
factor. "I expect we'll see provocations over the
summer" - possibly another incident in the Yellow
Sea or a cyber-attack or a nuclear test," he said.
"They do need to make up for the missile failure."
North Korea also has more practical
military and political reasons for wanting to
conduct the test in defiance of diplomatic efforts
to persuade its new leader, Kim Jong-eun, to call
off the project. "There's a military imperative,"
said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State
Department official now with the International
Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The
North's first two underground nuclear tests, in
October 2006 and again in May 2009, he said, "did
not go very well".
Although North Korea
did manage to explode nuclear devices on both
occasions, they were so small as to have been
viewed by scientists elsewhere as a possible
North Korea's top priority now is
to be able to miniaturize a warhead in order to
send it to a target on a missile rather than drop
it as a bomb from a plane. "They want to get
something small enough to fit on a Rodong," said.
Fitzpatrick, also at the Asan forum.
another issue is the need to convince the North
Korean people that Kim Jong-eun is a strong
leader, capable of controlling a military
establishment with 1.2 million troops while
solidifying his power over the country. "Having
failed on the missile," said Fitzpatrick, "they've
got to do something that goes boom" - and provides
more fodder for KCNA journalists to come up with
ways for snuffing the South Korean "rabid dog" and
"rat" whom they love to hate.