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The Young General’s Old Tricks

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TOKYO – Brinkmanship seems to be congenital in North Korea. Under the late Kim Jong-il’s pudgy young successor – his third son, Kim Jong-un, dubbed “the Young General” – threats and mendacity still mark the Hermit Kingdom’s diplomacy.

With North Korea’s announcement of plans to use an Unha-3 rocket to launch its Bright Star-3 satellite into earth orbit in mid-April, the newest threat is a continuation of an old one. Indeed, it signals a quick demise for the agreement reached with the United States just weeks ago.

The decision to launch the satellite, which had been planned by Kim Jong-il, is clearly intended to provide a “heroic” martial achievement for a new leader who lacks any military experience. The regime aims to boost North Korea’s international prestige and domestic morale simultaneously, with the population supposedly keen to support this show of the country’s technological and military might.

And, no surprise, North Korea’s leaders also claim that what they propose to launch is a “peaceful” satellite. But no one, particularly in the region, where North Korean missiles pose the gravest threat, accepts this claim at face value. It is clear that the rocket to be launched is effectively a long-range ballistic missile, which might be able to reach Guam, the site of an important US military base.

So doubtful is the world of North Korea’s claim of peaceful intent that not only did the United Nations, South Korea, the US, Japan, and the European Union immediately express concern; so did China and Russia – perhaps the only two countries in the world that are on good terms with the Kim regime.

Despite the international community’s almost unanimous demand for restraint, North Korea is highly unlikely to roll back its launch plans. Halting such missile tests is simply not an option for a regime whose only claim to legitimacy is the military threat that it poses to others.

The announcement of the forthcoming launch is timed, as always seems to be the case with North Korea’s provocations, to the regime’s need for food and funds from around the world to prevent the reemergence of mass starvation at home. Moreover, 2012 is a special year for North Korea, starting with the 70th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth on February 16. That occasion will be followed by the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth on April 15 and the 80th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Army on April 25. The country’s undernourished masses are not being invited to the capital, Pyongyang, for the extravagant parades that will be held at enormous cost. The missile launch, it seems, will have to suffice for them.

The regime uses food as the currency of its domestic power and foreign policy. For the commemoration of Kim Jong-il’s birthday in February, a kilogram of fish was provided to residents in one district, but nowhere else. At the same time, the regime sought 240,000 tons of nutritional support in its recent negotiations with the US and South Korea, though the North was forced to return 30,000 tons of rice from a previous food-aid package as part of its recent agreement with the US.

Indeed, the North lets few diplomatic occasions pass without strong-arming its interlocutors for more. For Kim Jong-un, even a meeting with Japanese officials in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, to discuss the return of Japanese women who went to North Korea with their Korean husbands thinking that they were journeying to a socialist paradise, served as a platform to secure food aid from Japan.

The negotiations were to be held between Song Il-ho, North Korea’s ambassador responsible for normalizing relations with Japan, and Hiroshi Nakai, a former minister who negotiates officially for the release of Japanese citizens abducted by the North. But Nakai was unable to leave Tokyo, and a university professor replaced him as Japan’s negotiator. Rank-conscious North Korea would normally send a lower official than Song if his counterpart were substituted, but no change was made, so desperate is the North for food.

North Korea then asked Japan for economic aid and food supplies in exchange for returning not only the Japanese wives in question, but also seven Japanese known to have been abducted by the North. The Japanese aid, like the ransom paid to a kidnapper, must be provided by April 15, just in time for the commemoration of Kim Il-song’s birth – a clear indication of North Korea’s true intentions, and desperation.

And now, given the potential cost of scuttling the recent agreement with the US, the decision to launch a long-range missile takes that desperation a step further. In fact, it has been suggested that the launch is intended to be a demonstration to Iran of the North’s missile prowess, as the Islamic Republic could become a customer for the illicit missile and nuclear-technology sales that are one of the regime’s few sources of hard currency.

Thus, the North Korean drama, now starring Kim Jong-un, plays on, relying on extorted proceeds from manufactured crises abroad to finance spectacular kitsch and brutal repression at home. It is up to China, the real director of the North Korean production, to drop the curtain on this abominable show and its rogue star.

Yuriko Koike is Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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