- - Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I was in South Korea in mid-February with a fact-finding delegation of experienced policy leaders on Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia issues sponsored by The Washington Times. Our visit was given a heightened immediacy by the fact that it happened to coincide with a flurry of strategic provocations from the North.

In the space of a month, North Korea tested another nuclear weapon, put a satellite into orbit and fired a long-range ICBM that demonstrated their capability to hit any part of the U.S.

The U.N. Command/U.S. Forces Korea was in the midst of preparations for its annual joint military exercises with the ROK military. Always taken as provocation by the North, this year’s eight weeks of maneuvers is called “the largest scale ever” by South Korea’s defense ministry and is a well-choreographed technological show of force.

North Korea’s military doctrine leans increasingly toward asymmetric warfare, according to Richard Chancellor, a senior analyst with U.S. Forces Korea, which means they would attempt to use conventional weaponry to offset their inability to match the U.S. and South Korea’s technological advances in cruise missiles or submarines. For example, the North can roll out an artillery piece, fire a shell into downtown Seoul and roll the gun back inside. Of the South’s 50 million people, about half live in and around the Seoul metropolitan area.

The timing of our delegation, which was co-chaired by Dan Burton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Washington Times President and CEO Larry Beasley, could not have been better from the viewpoint of getting a firsthand immersion understanding of the stress of ongoing conflict that is the daily life of a South Korean.

U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert, who received the delegation at the embassy’s historic landmark residence, remarked on the resilience of the South Korean people in the face of continual threats and hostility from the North, while also observing that the recent events had heightened tensions in the South to an unprecedented level.

Briefings by top government officials frequently had to be rearranged to accommodate new developments. This was particularly true on Feb. 11, when South Korea announced it had closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex. That project had employed more than 50,000 North Koreans and created a revenue stream to the North, with hopes of bringing them away from their nuclear plans and creating a normalized environment in which citizens of both countries could interact. However, government officials in the South accuse the North of using Kaesong revenues to finance their nuclear and missile programs.

In all our meetings, much of the discussion of North Korea necessarily focused on the personality of its president, Kim Jong-un. Since he took over the top leadership position a little more than four years ago, Mr. Kim has moved decisively to consolidate his power. The Associated Press reported that South Korean intelligence officials estimate Mr. Kim to have executed about 70 people since taking power, including at least three of his four top generals. Some of the executions have been quite dramatic, such as the case of Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol, who was executed with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of people at a military school in Pyongyang.

According to intelligence reports and accounts smuggled out of the North, Mr. Kim suffers the symptoms of someone clinically depressed. He is known to drink heavily and not sleep well at night. “If there is no North Korea, there is no world,” he has stated. As a source in the Korean government told us, “Killing your friends and relatives takes a toll on you.” A person like this is someone you consider putting under a 24-hour suicide watch.

We know from his public pronouncements that he is given to impulsive outbursts of anger. In early March he told his military that “nuclear warheads need to be ready for use at any time,” according to the North Korean state news agency KCNA. This rash statement was underscored last week when Mr. Kim announced his military’s readiness to “crush the Blue House” and “smash President Park Geun-hye.” Imagine having a sworn enemy, with questionable mental stability, just 30 miles outside Washington, D.C., who possesses nuclear weapons and long-range artillery, threatening to kill the president of the United States.

Taking into consideration all the flashpoints in the world at this time, most would conclude that the Korean Peninsula is the single most unpredictable and dangerously volatile place on earth at this time.

South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se said, “The onus is on North Korea to behave as a civilized nation. Even during the Six Party Talks, North Korea engaged in deception, as they continued to develop their weapon systems.”

Mr. Yun said, “If North Korea does not halt its nuclear ambitions, the country will be further isolated, will lurch farther into poverty and have only its military power.”

Mr. Yun feels the global reaction to Mr. Kim’s provocations is appropriate, and that Mr. Kim may have underestimated the response. “The North Korean missile test was a harsh slap in the face to China,” Mr. Yun said, adding, “the U.S. Congressional resolution, coupled with the U.N. sanctions, is the toughest response ever and sends a very strong signal to North Korea and the international community.”

Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1991-2009).

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