- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008


Earthquake tremors stem from one of two sources. The more familiar trigger is shifting tectonic plates. But they can also be caused by rising magma.

It is important to recognize the subtle difference between the two. If the former, the tremors are usually short-lived, dispelling further concerns of climactic activity. But, if the latter, they can be a forewarning of danger yet to come — i.e., an impending volcanic eruption. In private discussions with President Bush last week, visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak undoubtedly shared his concerns over political tremors emanating from North Korea — and his thoughts as to whether they are short-lived or a more ominous forewarning of dangers yet to come.

President Lee came to the United States with a clear mandate. Not only voted into office in December as the first Grand National Party president in 10 years, his party also enjoyed a landslide victory in the April 9 legislative election. After 10 years of appeasement toward North Korea by past South Korean administrations that sent Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid with nothing to show for it today, Mr. Lee is now determined to tie future aid to responsible actions by the North to defuse hostilities.

But tremors to the North may indicate Earth-shaking changes, beyond the control of either Pyongyang or Seoul, are occurring as conditions within the Hermit Kingdom worsen.

For North Korea watchers who since the death of strongman Kim Il-song have predicted the ultimate implosion of the country, the survival of his son, Kim Jong-il, for 14 years has been an unpleasant surprise. While the father maintained a delicate balance between the military and the party as a power broker, the son quickly disrupted that balance, looking to the military as his source of strength after his father’s death. Currying favor with the military has created some problems. Within a relatively short time, Kim Jong-il has promoted more officers to general rank than had his father during more than a half-century of rule. With time, however, creating so many chiefs takes a toll. Loyalties decrease as jealousies increase.

Making general rank tends to lose its luster as the privileges attached to it are not what they once were. It now appears one of the tremors from the North is a shift by Kim Jong-il from his “military first” policy to the more balanced policy of his father. But the military, sensing this, will now be reluctant to accept a lesser role.

There are other tremors discernible in Pyongyang signaling a loss of governmental control. Public executions are on the rise. Allegedly corrupt officials are being purged. Starvation again rears its ugly head, leaving workers too weak to even report to work.

Interestingly, while the “military first” policy has resulted in the army getting priority for food, decades of malnourished North Koreans have impacted upon those in uniform today. Size and weight requirements for military recruits from the land of plenty in South Korea have been adjusted upward over the years as food sources flourished. Those from the land of denial in North Korea have undergone a downward trend. What could be more telling about a government’s lack of concern for the welfare of its own people?

Undoubtedly, President Lee is concerned about these tremors. And he knows they are coming at a time of challenge in the South as well. U.S. forces are being drawn down. A reorganization is under way in which wartime control will be relinquished by the United States as our forces transition to a support role in any future conflict — leaving the first line of defense for South Korea, appropriately, to South Koreans.

Meanwhile, the billions of dollars sent during the last decade by the South to the North, mostly benefiting the North Korean military, has denied funding of replacement programs for aging South Korean military equipment.

It is a challenging time for Mr. Lee, coming when it remains uncertain whether tremors from the North are merely shifting tectonic plates, with minimum aftereffects to be felt, or a warning of volcanic eruption, with much more violent activity yet to come.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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