North Korea: Business as Usual

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North Korea: Business as Usual

The Obama administration was right to test the waters with Kim Jong-un’s regime. But it still seems military first.

On Sunday, Kim Jong-un made his first public speech since assuming the North Korean leadership after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. The speech, followed by a military parade, was the culmination of several days of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-sung.

The events during the celebration provided some intriguing glimpses into how the new regime will operate. Although there were some differences between the way the new and old regime conduct business, it appears that on defense-related issues at least it will be business as usual.

There were of course some interesting contrasts. For a start, the North Koreans appeared to be trying to be more transparent. Kim Jong-un’s decision to speak in public was a break with his father, who never delivered a speech to the general public. This, coupled with the invitation to members of the press to observe the missile launch, suggests a regime known for its secrecy may be attempting to make better use of the international media to push a different side of the story.

As has been widely reported, the launch failed, but the way the North Koreans handled the entire event was interesting. They consistently stated they were launching a weather satellite as part of the celebrations, and argued the U.N. Space Treaty guarantees every nation the right to develop a space program.

The problem is that most international observers believed the North Koreans were actually using the launch as a cover for ballistic missile testing, specifically the Taepodong 2.  Indeed, in their official press release on the launch, U.S. military commands NORAD and USNORTHCOM referred to the event as a launch of the Taepodong 2 missile.

“North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. systems detected and tracked a launch of the North Korean Taepo Dong-2 missile at 6:39 p.m. EDT. The missile was tracked on a southerly launch over the Yellow Sea,” the release ran.

“Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 km west of Seoul, South Korea. The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat.”  

Following the failed launch, North Korean state TV announced: “The DPRK launched its first application satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province at 07:38:55 on Friday.  The earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit.  Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking in the cause of the failure.”

This would have been a major embarrassment, but to the surprise of many, they at least owned up to it. I can’t recall a similar instance.

The other difference on previous form I noted was that during his speech, Kim addressed his country’s economic woes: “It is the firm resolution of the Workers’ Party of Korea to enable our people, the best people in the world who have remained loyal to the party, overcoming all difficulties, to live, without tightening their belts any longer, and fully enjoy wealth and prosperity under socialism.” 

He also indicated reunification of Korea remains a goal: “The WPK and the DPRK government will join hands with anyone who truly wants the reunification of the country and the peace and prosperity of the nation and make responsible and patient efforts to accomplish the historic cause of national reunification.”

Still, despite these differences, there was much that was familiar, including placing the military at the heart of North Korean strategy.

“The Korean revolutionary armed forces have fully demonstrated the might of the powerful revolutionary army distinct in its revolutionary nature and strong in its militant spirit and might under the care of Kim Il- sung and Kim Jong-il,” he said. “The military and technical superiority is no longer a monopoly of the imperialists and gone are the days when the enemies could threaten and blackmail against the DPRK with A bombs.”  

The question, then, is what will they do next? South Korean intelligence reports indicated even before the attempted missile launch that the North Koreans were preparing for a third underground nuclear test.  An April 9 report by ABC news and the Associated Press stated:

“Recent satellite images show North Korea is digging a new tunnel in what appears to be preparation for a third nuclear test, according to South Korean intelligence officials.  The excavation at North Korea’s northeast Punggye-ri site, where nuclear tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, is in its final stages, according to a report by intelligence officials…‘North Korea is covertly preparing for a third nuclear test, which would be another grave provocation,’ said the intelligence report, which cited U.S. commercial satellite photos taken April 1. ‘North Korea is digging up a new underground tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in addition to its existing two underground tunnels, and it has been confirmed that the excavation works are in the final stages.’”

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has come under fire for how it has handled the new regime. The focus has been on negotiations with North Korea that took place a few weeks ago, including the so-called Leap Day Deal that promised food aid should North Korea desist from a number of its activities. However, during an April 13 briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark C. Toner indicated that the agreement had been “suspended”:

“…North Korea’s behavior to date since we signed this agreement has – as we’ve discussed several times, has raised doubts about their ability to live up to their obligations and their commitments. And so given their willingness to flout international obligations and move ahead with a launch that was clearly in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, that we don’t feel we can move forward at any level, including at the nutritional assistance level, because we don’t feel that we can frankly trust the North Koreans that this will end up in appropriate hands.”

Personally, I saw the deal as an attempt to test the direction North Korea was going with a new leader. Would the new leadership be willing to come back to the negotiation table?  The State Department was working this angle, but for the Defense Department it was business as usual. Most of the public tends to forget that the U.S. is still technically at war with North Korea – there’s no peace treaty, so on the military side, there’s always a high state of alert.

During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on March 28, Gen. James D. Thurman, the commander of the U.S., UN and Combined U.S. and Korean Command forces stated: 

“I believe we are in a very uncertain period on the Korean Peninsula with the possibility of unexpected events leading to miscalculation. North Korea remains the greatest threat to stability in Northeast Asia. Upon the death of Kim Jong-il…power transferred to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un…To date, the leadership transition appears to be proceeding without discernible internal challenges…In particular, the leadership remains committed to continuing its ‘military first’ policy, which places the country’s military in the premier position for resources and maintains its status as the world’s most militaristic state.”

I think the Obama administration was right to test the waters with the new regime while still maintaining military vigilance. Let the State Department do what it does best, namely negotiate, while the armed forces should remain prepared to deal with the situation militarily if needed.  As Karl von Clausewitz famously stated long ago, “War is…the continuation of politics by other means.”

Capt. (Ret.) Gail Harris is a former U.S. naval officer, and was the highest-ranking African American female in the United States Navy upon her retirement in December 2001. She was also the first female and African American to lead the Intelligence Department for Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron in Rota,Spain the largest US Navy aviation squadron.