SEOUL | North Korea‘s announcement Friday that it is scrapping all political and security arrangements with the South could be a cover for an ongoing policy struggle inside the secretive state’s leadership, a Korea specialist here said.
“I think [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-iI is trying to coordinate different views, but these views are definitely competing,” said Choi Jin-wook of Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification. “And I think one view is the military’s.”
Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said Friday that agreements “putting an end to the political and military confrontation between the North and the South will be nullified.” These include a 1992 agreement on recognition of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border between the Koreas in the Yellow Sea.
Mr. Choi said the military “could try to exaggerate tension with the South” to justify its continued pre-eminence.
Friday’s statement was the latest in a stream of vitriol.
On Jan 13., the North said it would maintain its nuclear arms until Washington reverses its “hostile policy.” On Jan. 17, a North Korean military officer, making an unusual appearance on state television, announced an “all-out confrontation” against the conservative government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. North Korean officials also told visiting U.S. scholar Selig Harrison that they had enough material for six nuclear weapons.
Bellicose statements are hardly new for North Korea and the accords supposedly nullified Friday had been violated during naval clashes in 1999 and 2002.
Moreover, the agreements revoked do not include the Kaesong Special Industrial Zone. Although restrictions were placed on South Korean staff there last year, the zone, a flagship of North-South economic cooperation, was operating normally Friday, an official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.
Friday’s message also is at odds with statements Mr. Kim made to visiting Chinese envoys last week — his first meeting with foreigners since he is said to have suffered a stroke in August. He reportedly said he was seeking the denuclearization of the peninsula and did not desire increased tensions.
Drew Thompson, an expert on China and North Korea at the Nixon Center in Washington, said the Chinese, like the South Koreans, are “confused and frustrated” by the mixed signals emanating from Pyongyang. He noted that North Korea in late November closed border crossings with China, stationing border guards every 50 yards along the main crossing points in the north and northwest.
Mr. Choi said the North Korean actions suggest that policy or power struggles are under way in Pyongyang in the apparent absence of any successor to Mr. Kim.
He noted that Pyongyang’s policy-setting Lunar New Year’s Message, while reinforcing the “Songeun,” or military-first policy, also stated that “the military should help the people” - a reversal of previous messages, which stressed that the people are expected to assist the military.
The army has tremendous privilege in North Korea. Smuggled photographs show soldiers eating unconcernedly while ragged, starving children look on, and there are believed to be strains between the ruling party and the army.
Kim Tae-woo, another North Korean expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said that Friday’s statements were “unusual” and warned that South Korean should “prepare for provocations.”
Seoul’s Defense Ministry said Friday that it was ready to repel naval incursions. Unconfirmed reports stated that a South Korean destroyer had been dispatched to bolster units along the sea border. However, Mr. Kim of the Korea Institute for Defense Analystis said he believed that Pyongyang’s differing messages are calibrated to distinguish between the North’s South Korean and U.S. policy approaches.
“Towards the U.S., North Korea is expressing some degree of expectation for better treatment from [President] Obama,” he said. “In contrast, it is becoming tougher on South Korea, so it is continuing a war of nerves.”
Dan Pinkston, head of the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office concurred.
“The messages they send to Beijing, Seoul or Washington are quite different,” he said. “I think this one is aimed at South Korea.”