- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It now appears North Korea’s test of a nuclear device was partially successful. We need to understand not only why Pyongyang ignored international pressure — even from its sole ally, China — to conduct this test but also how it was allowed to be done.

The seeds for this test were planted in 1994 when Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il Song, died. The father’s rule for almost half a century was a brutal model for total submission — a laboratory experiment in mind control as his people were stripped of all outside contact, human dignity and independent thought. But the father maintained a critical balance between two foundations upon which stability of his power base rested — the party leadership and military.

When Kim Il-sung died, the son experienced uncertainty. Long groomed as his father’s replacement, the son held, initially, a closer affinity to the party than the military. However, as later shared by Hwang Jong Yop, the most senior North Korean official to defect to the West, the son felt the party denied him the same respect it showed his father. Sensing a power void, the son’s personal bodyguard, a two-star general, sought to fill it. Massaging his personal relationship with Kim Jong-il, the general weaned him away from the party’s influence, to the military. Given additional authority, the general embarked upon initiatives to quickly endear himself to the son, bringing in “tribute.” Dealing with drug traffickers, some of whom were later invited to set up shop in Pyongyang, the general established a slush fund for Kim Jong-il into which millions of dollars were deposited. The weaning process from the party continued as the general took Kim Jong-il to military bases, where each base tried to outdo the other in honors rendered to their leader. Soon thereafter, Kim Jong-il promoted this general from two to four stars. His affinity to the military is further evident in the number of generals promoted — more in the first decade of his rule than his father made in half a century. The end result is the equilibrium between party and military no longer exists; the military alone has Kim Jong-il’s ear.

With Kim Jong-il’s power now resting on a single pedestal foundation, a dangerous situation exists. In a totalitarian state where promotions are given away freely, the military has become top-heavy. Military leaders jockey for power and influence with their leader. The son knows he can never afford to minimize the military’s role — for how goes the military, so too goes he.

All the wrong ingredients are in play within the military establishment. Fifty-three years have passed since the Korean war, leaving it devoid of combat experience — worrisome because only those with such experience can appreciate the dreadful price extracted from those called upon to fight. This atmosphere has created a military high on male hormones, suffering from unnatural levels of bravado due to the recent nuclear test. Kim Jong-il simply cannot do anything now on the international front that might suggest to his military he has gone soft. He must act confidently and forcefully. A comment by China’s foreign minister, suggesting Pyongyang might be relying upon Chinese protection in its international dealings, caused North Korea’s generals to bristle and may well have prompted Kim Jong-il to quickly authorize the test to show the world otherwise.

This military focus would also explain why Kim Jong-il who, as part of the historic 2000 summit held in Pyongyang with South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, although having agreed to a reciprocal meeting in Seoul, has yet to reciprocate — and probably never will. For Kim Jong-il, this demonstrates to his military the “mountain comes to Muhammad.”

While the military’s evolving role under Kim Jong-il explains why the nuclear test took place, South Korea’s leadership role over the past decade explains how. Its appeasement initiative — the “Sunshine Policy” — created a perception in North Korea that Seoul would pay any price for peace. And pay it has — literally billions of dollars, intended for peaceful purposes, have funded Pyongyang’s technological breakthrough. It was later learned a large part of this funding was illegal, paid by Kim Dae Jung to entice Kim Jong-il to hold the 2000 Pyongyang summit. With Seoul’s generous funding assistance, one could argue, development of Pyongyang’s recently-tested nuclear device has been a joint effort on both sides of the DMZ.

A satellite photograph taken of the Korean peninsula at night reveals a well illuminated south and ominously dark north — with the DMZ the delineating line. We, however, should not be in the dark about North Korean intentions and capabilities, simply hoping Pyongyang will one day shed its rogue state status. The dominant influence of its military simply will not allow that to happen. We must accept the fact we are destined to deal with a very dangerous force of darkness. Hopefully, in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, the light has finally come on in Seoul and it will adopt a more cooperative spirit with the U.S., abandoning its role as an enabler for North Korea.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times. He has made 10 trips to North Korea.

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