Pyongyang Ratchets Up the Tension

Op-ed in the National, Abu Dhabi

May 28, 2009

North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong-Il is determined to go out with a bang and not a whimper. Severely weakened by a stroke last year, the emaciated Kim has been frenetically delivering "on-the-spot guidance," as if to reassure himself and his country that he is still in control. This week's nuclear test was the most-recent and grandiose move to seal his legacy. Arising out of the context of presuccession maneuvering, this provocation is the latest manifestation of a retrograde turn back to the past, one that could have implications for the Middle East.

When Kim Jong-Il assumed power in 1994 after the death of his father, the country's founding leader Kim Il-Sung, he had been groomed for power for 20 years, reportedly running the country on a day-to-day basis for a decade. With his health now obviously in decline and after long speculation, his youngest son, the 25 year-old Jong-Un, appears to have been designated as Mr. Kim's replacement, with the title "Sagacious General, the One and Only Successor of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong-Il."

Were Kim Jong-Un, partly educated in Switzerland, to attain power anytime soon, he would be far, far younger and less experienced than his father was in 1994. And he would face an internal situation much less forgiving than 15 years earlier. After a devastating famine and a decade of lackluster economic performance, any successor will encounter greater pressure to change current policies and practices and more potential rivals than at the time of the previous succession. The three centers of power within North Korea-the Kim family clique, the military, and the party-are each divided by internal rivalries and there is evidence of opposition coalitions across the three groups. Any successor will face challenges establishing authority and consolidating power. The country has an abundance of security organizations, and score-settling, some of it violent, is likely during any interregnum.

This uncertainty encourages obeisance to traditional approaches; in the context of internal political maneuvering, no one wants to be vulnerable to charges of apostasy, and no one has the power to push through reform. The influence of the military, a conservative, antireform institution, is on the rise. Anyone who might harbor misgivings about the nuclear or missile tests has kept their head below the parapet and their mouth shut.

In the economic field, the latest innovation is a "150-day speed battle campaign" of Stakhanovite exhortation, accompanied by the revival of an economic doctrine from the 1950s. Recent policy moves such as limiting the hours of markets, cracking down on cross-border trade, and disrupting the South Korean sponsored industrial park at Kaesong, have generally revealed an instinct for control over liberalization.

Rather, the regime appears bent on glorifying the past: pouring resources into monumental edifices to build "a great and prosperous nation" in preparation of the centenary of Kim Il-Sung in 2012. This will be expensive. As the legitimate sources of revenue decline while the diplomatic situation deteriorates, aid dries up, and trade sanctions are tightened, the response could be an upsurge in missile and nuclear technology sales as well as illicit activities such as drug trafficking and counterfeiting.

Such developments could affect the Middle East. In the past North Korea has been linked, through cooperation in the missile field, to nearly every oil exporter, most notably Iran. Today interest centers on Iran, Syria, with which North Korea cooperated in the nuclear field, and their proxy Hezbollah.

Although the North Korean case will be taken up in the UN Security Council, UN sanctions have proven utterly ineffective in deterring North Korean behavior. While China, the country's main trade partner, and its primary source of critical oil and food imports, has paid lip service to sanctions, there is no evidence that they have been implemented. From North Korea's standpoint, it has paid virtually no price for multiple missile and nuclear tests in defiance of the United Nations.

The United States, Japan, South Korea, and others may well begin to take action outside the UN framework, possibly through the Proliferation Security Initiative. In the past, the United States and others have discouraged North Korea's potential customers from buying their wares, but some sales (such as short-range missiles) are not illegal. In one case, interdicted missiles bound for Yemen were ultimately released and delivered. In 2007 Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility thought to have been built with North Korean help.

So as North Korea ratchets up the provocations, it would not be surprising if other countries counter with more-robust responses. The ocean is a big place. Ships can sink mysteriously.