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DONG Yong-Sueng

North Korea’s Military Shuffle and Brinkmanship

DONG Yong-Sueng

Mar. 12, 2009

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North Korea is playing with fire - again. At the end of January it announced that it would invalidate all of intra-Korea agreements designed to ease tensions, including the maritime border or Northern Limit Line, which raises prospects of a military encounter in the West Sea. Now, in North Hamgyeong Province, the North is preparing to launch what it calls a “communications satellite,” but in reality is a long-range missile with a potential range of 6,700 kilometers, putting all of Asia and the U.S. states of Alaska and Hawaii in reach, according to Seoul officials and foreign intelligence agencies.

The North's bellicose behavior is generally being explained as an attempt to grab the attention of new the U.S. administration for concessions and to pressure the South to temper its hard-line policy toward Pyongyang. However, a deeper and more sensitive explanation may be found in changes occurring in the North Korean army.

On February 11, National Defense Council of North Korea and Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers' Party announced the appointment of Kim Yong-chun as minister of the People's Armed Forces. The new defense chief is considered a close advisor to Kim Jong-il, who is suspected of suffering a stroke last August. The North's state media has taken great lengths to try to show that the North Korean leader is back in full control of policies Kim Il-chol, who has been defense minister since 1998, was reassigned to be deputy minister of the First Infantry of the People's Armed Forces.

The announcement was unusual. High-level personnel changes in Pyongyang usually are known when new names and titles are mentioned in passing by the state media. Therefore, the announcement of Kim Yong-chun seems to carry extra weight, an attempt to resolve army complaints.

The start of so-called “military first” policies in the mid-1990s put the North Korean army in a state of confusion. Kim Jong-il, consolidating power after the death of his father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, took over all the high-ranking positions related to the army (i.e. commander-in-chief of North Korean Army and chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission) and realigned military operations, elevating the status of Political Bureau and the Department of the General Staff. Until then, the defense ministry had overseen army operations. Ministry officials complained that they were merely reduced to occupying offices.

With appointment of Kim Yong-chun, who has been vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and the chief of the General Staff of the Korea People's Army, the North seems to be reverting back to the old system. It moves the army's internal workings under the Defense Ministry again. Kim Il-chul's reassignment further proves the status of the People' s Defense Ministry has changed.

Kim Yong-chun's new status has various implications. It suggests ongoing changes within the North Korean army and emphasizes North Korean belligerence. But in steering back to a more confrontational posture, Pyongyang finds it out of step.

For example, the North does not need to revert to saber rattling to get the attention of the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Asia suggests that the region is already firmly on the Obama government's radar. The fact that Clinton chose Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China for her first foreign trip signals the Obama will have different foreign policy priorities from the Bush administration. The US is determined to cope sternly with nuclear proliferation. While Obama has signaled his willingness to engage Kim Jong-il in talks, he insists the North must denuclearize if it wants normal relations with Washington and other concessions.

Pyongyang may attempt to further escalate tensions before or after Supreme People's Assembly elections (on March 8), Assembly convening (early April), Kim Il-sung' s birthday and the army's anniversary (April 25). But the North should not expect South Korea and the rest of the international community to cower. To be sure, Clinton dismissed the North's recent actions as part of its normal diplomatic strategy. The world has realized the North's game and there may be less urgency to make concessions.

To gain worldwide attention, the only recourse for North Korea is to undertake drastic reforms and resolve the nuclear issue. In doing so, the global media will respond with more positive reports and the climate for international assistance will be created. That is the way for the North to improve relationship with the US and the most effective way to dispel complaints within its army.

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