- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2010

History occasionally repeats itself, but seldom with the carbon-copy quality of North Korea’s provocative artillery attack on a small South Korean island near the disputed frontier. The latest aggression, a follow-up to the North’s torpedoing of a South Korean patrol ship in March, shooting incidents in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and bellicose nuclear rhetoric coincides with the debut of Kim Jong-un, ailing strongman Kim Jong-il’s son and designated successor.

In 1980, when then-supreme leader Kim Il-sung publicly anointed Kim Jong-il as his heir apparent, the pattern was virtually the same: North Korean threats, terrorist activity and special operations against the South similarly rose significantly. The parallel should lead us to tighten our seat belts for a rough ride ahead.

During much of the 1980s, I led the CIA’s all-source analysis on Korean issues, responsible for inferring Pyongyang’s intentions as well as capabilities on the peninsula. Like today, Kim Il-sung had fashioned a dynastic succession, picking a son virtually unknown to foreigners. To be sure, we understood that Kim had given his protege increasingly significant domestic roles since the mid-1970s. But Kim Sr. didn’t ice the cake at his son’s coming-out party until 1980, when he assigned him to the party’s powerful Politburo, Military Commission and Secretariat. Among other things, the new jobs came with a general’s rank and, reportedly, oversight of clandestine operations against the South.

The three years that followed should give us pause today. By 1983, we had witnessed a half-dozen bloody infiltrations into the South by killer and sabotage teams, the arrest in Canada of assassins targeting a South Korean president and the spectacular 1983 Rangoon bombing that wiped out the South Korean Cabinet. The North also massively redeployed its military closer to the DMZ and launched a plan to double the size of the army.

Were North Korean clandestine operations and military developments part of a grand plan? We didn’t know then, but it is clear in retrospect that Kim Il-sung had an overriding domestic goal: to cement his son’s succession by putting him at the center of an aggressive strategy that forged his personal ties to a powerful military and identified him with reunification, the regime’s raison d’etre. The question is, as Kim Jong-il passes the baton, are we seeing that script again?

Most obviously, Kim Jong-un’s elevation at the most recent party congress - especially his appointment to the Military Commission and instant promotion to general - fit the opening scene. Chinese as well as South Korea reports also suggest the torpedoing of the South Korean patrol ship before the party congress was specifically intended to preview the more belligerent behavior of Kim Jong-un’s role. In fact, Kim Jong-il personally promoted and decorated the general in charge of the submarine force involved in the sinking. And father and son left no doubt about Kim Jong-un’s part in the recent violence. Both reportedly paid a highly publicized visit to the artillery unit that shelled the South Korean island a day before the attack.

In this “like father, like son” scenario, what will come next? If the 1980s are a guide, this is just the beginning. With some 100,000 special-operations forces, unconventional attacks are an obvious option, including deeper into the South or against South Korean interests abroad. Recalling the buildup of North Korean forces and the nuclear program alongside aggressive clandestine operations in the 1980s, nuclear and missile saber rattling seem likely as well. Given the shelling, so, too, do more serious artillery or rocket attacks along the heavily armed DMZ.

Political disarray in South Korea over the artillery attack should not lead Washington to temporize. Nor should China’s unwillingness to apply its economic clout or other influence, as witnessed by its incredible deference to Pyongyang’s belligerence to date. The Kims’ succession is driving events, and in dealing with North Korea, we delude ourselves if we think inducements can change the dynastic agenda. When Pyongyang calls demanding talks, we should let the phone ring. Meanwhile, our military deployments and exercises on and around the peninsula will make clear to our allies that we stand by their side.

Kent Harrington spent 25 years at the CIA, where he served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, director of public affairs and chief of station in Tokyo