North Korea’s official source of information and incendiary insults, the Korean Central News Agency, announced Dec. 13 that the regime had executed the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un.
Jang Song Thaek was considered extremely influential, a confidant who helped Kim consolidate power after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il 2 years ago. The startling news was accompanied by the extreme rhetoric which characterizes Pyongyang’s public announcements.
This is the latest incident in continuing erratic behavior by isolated Pyongyang. On March 11, the North Korean army declared that the 1953 Korean War armistice was “invalid,” implying hostilities would resume. The military “hotline” connecting the two countries was abruptly cut. At the end of that month, bellicose threats against the United States were added.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded by describing North Korea as a clear threat, while Secretary of State John Kerry and South Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held a joint Washington news conference to emphasize the security partnership.
Pyongyang prevented South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial center, located 6 miles north of the DMZ, and then shut down the facility entirely. Cooperation resumed and the facility reopened in September. In early December, collaboration of on electronics installation began. The center is an important source of hard currency for the impoverished North.
In May 2012, Kim Jong Un publicly criticized those in the military for “developing a taste for money” and corruption. As part of the shake-up that followed, Kim assumed the rank of marshal of the People’s Army, the latest celebratory title that sycophants have attached to his name. Whether killing his uncle is related to solidifying power is unknown.
For several years, North Korea has been acting erratically in military matters. In March 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean ship Cheonan. In the same vicinity, North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.
In February 2012, North Korea appeared yet again to cease its on-again, off-again nuclear program. In joint announcements coordinated with the U.S. Department of State, the regime agreed to halt enrichment of uranium and construction of weapons, and permit international inspection.
Yet 2 months later, Pyongyang tested a missile, which ended in embarrassing failure. This unpredictable behavior, unfolding over a long period, implies infighting at the top.
Last summer, North Korea reversed course yet again, seeking to improve relations with the South. On Aug. 23, the two sides agreed to resume reunions of Korean families separated by the DMZ, after a 3-year hiatus, with Pyongyang actually pressing for a faster timetable than Seoul. Also in August, agreement was reached to reopen Kaesong.
North Korea invited U.S. diplomat Robert King to visit to discuss the possible release of imprisoned American Kenneth Bae.
South Ko-rean President Park Geun-hye, inaugurated in late February, has addressed these rapidly shifting political and propaganda currents from Pyongyang with calmness and continuity. From the start, she has held out the hand of cooperation, while leaving no doubt about resorting, if necessary, to her nation’s formidable military capacities.
She leads from great strength. South Korea is a stable representative democracy, and one of the largest, most productive economies in the world. The prosperity of the population overall is strikingly self-evident to this occasional visitor.
Public confidence and apparent unconcern about demented declarations and hostile acts north of the DMZ dividing line reflects the stance of the nation’s leadership.
North Korea, by stark static contrast, remains a desperately impoverished prisoner state, living on borrowed time.
Note to readers: Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College. Contact him at email@example.com.