The nuclear nightmare on the Korean Peninsula
“These sorts of totalitarian regimes never feel secure.”
That was professor Victor Cha, of Georgetown University and an experienced government official, in an NPR interview broadcast on Feb. 25. He was commenting on the grotesque murder of Kim Jong Nam, estranged half brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
He was killed in a Malaysian airport. His murderer used the lethal nerve agent VX. This frightening amber-colored liquid is odorless and tasteless, and kills almost immediately through devastating muscle spasms. South Korea intelligence officials have stated that North Korean government agencies orchestrated the killing.
North Korea is an economic wreck. The world’s last remaining truly totalitarian dictatorship held a Communist Party Congress in May 2016. Tight control of the enormous show was self-evident. The last party congress was held in 1980, an occasion for regime founder Kim Il Sung to indicate succession of power to his son Kim Jong Il.
Current dictator Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il, assumed power following the death of his father in 2011. He wore a business suit for the Communist Party Congress, a departure from the usual uniform. Kim publicly acknowledged economic challenges, long overdue but also a remarkable understatement.
The Communist Party Congress took place in a context of continuous friction, occasional violence and erratic aggression regarding South Korea. In 2013, North Korea announced a “state of war” with South Korea and threatened nuclear attack. Pyongyang abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending Korean War fighting, and cut the military “hot line” communications link with the south.
During this period Pyongyang temporarily prevented South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial center, located 6 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two nations. In February 2016, South Korea shut down the center to protest Pyongyang provocations. The center had been an important source of hard currency.
Developments in recent years could have been the prelude to war, including two atomic bomb tests in 2016 and a relatively advanced long-range missile test in February 2017. Yet there is no concrete evidence that North Korea is mobilizing to invade South Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear military capabilities are growing but remain rudimentary. Missile tests have included some limited success, but also failure.
Kim publicly criticized those in the military “developing a taste for money” amid reports of corruption. As part of a major military shakeup, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army. He has been ruthless in executing those suspected of disloyalty, including close family members.
In March 2016, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2270, which significantly strengthens sanctions on North Korea. These include bans on importing coal and minerals, and restrictions on cargo ships and financial transactions. China and Russia generally support sanctions, though with specific exceptions.
President Barack Obama’s moderate language and emphasis on international cooperation was consistent and welcome. In the current deteriorating situation, the U.S. rightly decided to deploy anti-ballistic missile systems in South Korea. Beijing and Pyongyang predictably angrily protested.
In the new U.S. administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster bring outstanding credentials. Both are general officers, in the Marine Corps and Army, respectively. Both have been combat commanders. McMaster wrote the influential book “Dereliction of Duty,” an impressive scholarly analysis of the Vietnam War. Their engagement probably makes another terrible Asia war less likely.
Cha describes weakness beneath bombast in Pyongyang. The challenge is applying pressure for positive change.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”