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Since December 2012, when South Korea warned of its neighbour’s increased militarization in the wake of Pyongyang’s successful launch of a long-range missile, Jong Un has kept his country in the headlines.
Although Pyongyang said the launch was of a weather observation satellite, Japan and other countries in the region condemned the move and called for harsher sanctions.
However, some Western analysts believed the launch was a bold political move which empowers and enhance’s Jong Un’s influence among his military and legitimises his leadership at home.
But in an unprecedented New Year’s speech, Jong Un called for stepping back from confrontation with South Korea and urged the two countries to work toward reunification.
Two weeks earlier, South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye announced that she was willing to pursue greater engagement and credible diplomacy with Pyongyang.
In Pyongyang, North Korean officials understood her message to mean that talks could ease five years of lingering tensions between the two countries.
Conservatives in South Korea
Barthélémy Courmont, a Professor of Political Science at Hallym University in South Korea, and an Associate Director for security and defense at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair at L’Université du Québec à Montréal, says that while a formal peace treaty does not exist between the two countries, Kim Jong Un’s announcement was part of his objective to implement new relations with Geun Hye.
“Elected last December, she took office late March, and although she took position for a more comprehensive dialogue with Pyongyang during her electoral campaign, she has been unable to change the Minister of National Defense,” Courmont says.
Courmont, who is also chief editor of Monde Chinois, Nouvelle Asie and research-fellow at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques in France, explains that the failure to remove the Minister of National Defense could have been interpreted by North Korea’s leadership as a sign that South Korean conservatives continued to control defense policies.
“We must understand this rhetoric at the domestic level. By proposing a peace treaty and new talks to Seoul, Kim Jung Un certainly cautioned the reformists within his own Labor party and national defense commission. At the same time, it is quite likely that the conservatives, who remain notably influential within the military, did not support such moves. By escalating and threatening the South, he does what his father did several times before him: balancing between the different groups within the political elite, depending on the situation and the possibilities,” Courmont.
Irrespective of Jong Un’s moves toward rapprochement, the United Nations Security Council slapped a fresh round of sanctions on North Korea – including restrictions on the import of luxury goods – for its satellite launch.
Relations between the two Koreas as a result deteriorated. On February 12, 2013, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test as part of Pyongyang’s “practical measures of counteraction” against unfriendly US policies. The Security Council responded with fresh sanctions just as South Korea and the US launched military exercises titled Foal Eagle.
A week later, Jong Un upped the ante by scrapping an armistice agreement and putting his military forces on alert, threatening to retaliate against any provocation.
Analysts believe the untested leader was beginning to feel cornered.
Ending the ‘provocations’
Kim Young Woong, of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, sees the recent actions of the North Korean leadership as desperate attempts to end military exercises near its borders.
Young Woong points to military exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, which began in April, and future joint US-South Korean operations on the Peninsula.
“I’m stressing that the United States has been rehearsing nuclear attack against N Korea for 50 years,” Young Woong says.
“This autumn, another large-scale training will be held by South Korea and the US, which will involve several hundreds of thousands of the military and civilians. Last year over 540,000 [military personnel] took part. It is quite understandable that the North Korean leadership and nation treats these trainings as a rehearsal of the attack against their country and tries hard to protect themselves,” Young Woong adds.
Key Resolve, which began on April 5, appears to have expanded in scope. For the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War, an Australian contingent participated in the exercises with US and South Korean forces.
Australia is a member of the 16-nation United Nations Command, which fought with UN forces against North Korea and China 60 years ago.
Gregory Koblentz, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations, says the fact that Jong Un is young and untested as a leader could mean that the situation is more unpredictable than usual.
“Kim Jong Un may desire closer ties with the South, but he will have to solidify the support of the military first,” Koblentz says.
The China factorIn the meantime, the US is partially relying on China to pressure its erstwhile ally. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing in mid-April to discuss ways to defuse the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
“There is no group of leaders on the face of the planet who have more capacity to make a difference in this than the Chinese, and everybody knows it, including, I believe, them,” Kerry said shortly before arriving in Beijing.
Courmont believes that while China aided Pyongyang in the 1950s, its interests – and image – now supersede what is happening on the peninsula.
“On the other side, this crisis, like the precedent ones, puts Beijing in a very important position: the US needs China, and the regional actors cannot deal with this issue without Beijing’s approval. In the early 1990s, China did not have such an influence, and it indicates how omnipresent China is now in regional security, economic and political affairs,” Courmont says.
But beyond its influence on Pyongyang, China has long-held strategic concerns about the future of the peninsula.
“China’s greatest fear is the collapse of the Kim regime which would result in a massive refugee flow and the unification of the Korean peninsula under a US-friendly government,” says Koblentz.
“They appear to be willing to tolerate pretty much anything to prevent that from happening. China has reportedly told North Korea not to continue testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles but they were ignored. It’s not clear what other red lines Beijing has communicated to Pyongyang,” Koblentz adds.
In early April, China’s President strongly condemned the deterioration of the situation in the peninsula.
“No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at an economic forum in Hainan province. “While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others.”
Some analysts say that Jong Un is following his father’s and grandfather’s policies of appearing to bring the Koreas to the brink of war – albeit with more dramatic flair – and then withdrawing once the international community agrees to provide humanitarian assistance and open direct negotiations.
Dmitry Babich, political commentator for the Voice of Russia, says that the young North Korean leader is after security, not money.
“He does not expect money rewards from South Korea or Western countries – for now. He just wants to pass the message: ‘Don’t you ever try to treat me like Qaddafi or Assad’,” says Babich.
With growing pressure for it to back down, and with no allies left to support it, North Korea’s National Defence Commission on April 18 listed conditions for resuming talks with Washington and Seoul.
The commission called on the US and South Korea to refrain from “provocations, fully apologize for their aggression and give assurances not to carry out nuclear war games designed to intimidate Pyongyang”.
Courmont believes that ultimately, the status quo will be maintained.
“Unless some of the actors lose self control – but I hardly see whom – there won’t be any war soon in the Korean peninsula,” he says.
“This crisis will end like all the others: around a table, with Pyongyang asking for more, and finally leaving the negotiations and returning to its hostile posture.”
By Daria Chernyshova in Moscow and Adla Massoud in New York