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On Point

The Grim Legacy Behind North Korea's Theater of Extortion


by Austin Bay
March 12, 2013

Call it North Korea's version of a '50s revival, though Pyongyang's 1950s retro is vicious Stalinist threat, not an evening of Chuck Berry and Elvis.

Earlier this month, North Korea's hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Un, revoked the Korean War armistice, signed 60 years ago in July 1953.

Revoking the armistice could signal a resumption of all-out hostilities. South Korea, the U.S., Japan and the United Nations recognize that. Given North Korea's record for repetitive, hot-headed threats, however, diplomats have reason to doubt imminent dire consequences. The Kim dynasty, a Marxist monarchy ruling North Korea's workers' paradise for three generations, has disclaimed or renounced the 1953 armistice at least a half-dozen times in the last two decades.

Since assuming power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, Jong Un has continued the dynastic tradition of threatening massive devastation. In February of this year, his regime threatened the U.S. with nuclear attack. In October 2012, while aboard a South Korean express train from Seoul to Cheonan, I saw a television news flash that informed me and my fellow passengers that North Korea had just threatened South Korea with nuclear immolation. Indeed, it appeared that everyone in that car had heard the threat before, ad nauseum.

South Korea and its allies have offered Pyongyang economic carrots, loans, oil, food and medical aid, and co-development projects designed to show the North that cooperation in lieu of conflict brings rewards.

Critics contend that the Kim regime steals the food aid and treats the economic incentives as money successfully extorted from its enemies. Proponents contend it acts as a brake on the North's worst impulses. Despite the latest revocation of the armistice, diplomats noted this week that so far North Korea has continued to permit South Korean managers to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to work in Kaesong. Kaesong is a North Korean special economic area where North Koreans work for southern manufacturers. Keeping Kaesong open is read by proponents of economic incentives as a signal that the rhetorical bellicosity is just bombast.

But treating North Korean ritual bellicosity and Cold War-era communist pomposity as merely theatrical ploys in an extortion shakedown would be a fatal error, for an appalling legacy of malice and slaughter lurks behind the Kim regime's aggressive antics.

Powerful military capabilities back the bombast. The Kim regime possesses a massive army well-supplied with artillery and armor. The regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons and its improving ballistic missile delivery systems give it inter-continental reach -- within a few years North Korea could make good on a threat to incinerate Honolulu and Los Angeles. And no one who accounts for the legacy of malice can say with any assurance that North Korea will never launch a nuclear attack, no one in Seoul, Washington or, for that matter, in Beijing.

Despite the 1953 armistice, for four decades dynasty patriarch Kim Il Sung sent saboteurs, kidnappers and assassins south. North Korean special operations commandoes infiltrated the South. Deadly artillery barrages never stopped. In November 2010, Kim Jong Il's forces slammed South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island with 170 heavy artillery and rocket rounds. The attack struck several civilian targets, including a small shopping center. The March 2010 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan (named after the city) was an outright act of war. Forty-three South Korean sailors died in the attack.

The 1953 armistice was supposed to end all armed hostilities on the Korean Peninsula and establish a reliable diplomatic mechanism for resolving disputes between Seoul and Pyongyang until, as the document says, "a final peaceful settlement is achieved." Ending the carnage of combat and resolving disputes would stabilize the North-South relationship and lead to a permanent peace treaty.

The armistice failed to achieve these goals. Why? Because the Kim dictatorship has never revoked war. And, aye, there's the rub. 

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