Monday, April 1, 2013

South Korea Gives Military Leeway to Answer North


SEOUL, South Korea — President Park Geun-hye of South Korea ordered the country’s military on Monday to deliver a strong and immediate response to any North Korean provocation, the latest turn in a war of words that has become a test of resolve for the relatively unproven leaders in both the North and South.
Ms. Park’s instructions to senior generals followed a series of bellicose pronouncements and actions by North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-un, has declared that the Korean Peninsula has reverted to a “state of war.”

“I consider the current North Korean threats very serious,” Ms. Park told the South’s generals on Monday. “If the North attempts any provocation against our people and country, you must respond strongly at the first contact with them without any political consideration.

“As top commander of the military, I trust your judgment in the face of North Korea’s unexpected surprise provocation,” she added. Her blunt response contrasted with the more dismissive attitude that South Korean leaders have usually taken toward North Korean threats.

The North under Mr. Kim has amplified threats against Washington and Seoul to much louder and more menacing levels than under the rule of his father, Kim Jong-il. Since the young Mr. Kim took power after his father’s death in late 2011, the North has launched a three-stage rocket, tested a nuclear device and threatened to hit major American cities with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

“Kim Jong-un certainly is more aggressive than his father, and behind his aggressiveness is a confidence following the North's successful launching of a long-range rocket and its nuclear test," said Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at Sejong Institute, a private research institute in South Korea. "What is clear is that compared with his father, who had absolute control on power, the young leader will cling harder to nuclear weapons as a tool of consolidating his power.”

“By raising these nuclear threats, he is ensuring that his country has regained the military balance it had lost to prosperous South Korea before shifting his attention more to the economy,” Mr. Cheong said. “He is more calculating than all these threats make outsiders believe.”

Mr. Kim’s decision to launch the rocket in December and detonate a nuclear device last month followed the North’s growing frustration, analysts said, that its earlier strategy of using threats and provocations to force Washington and Seoul to engage seemed less effective in recent years. Instead, the allies spearheaded more United Nations sanctions.

The sanctions coincided with the allies’ joint military drills, during which Washington demonstrated its political resolve to defend South Korea by taking unusual steps of publicizing the training missions of nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers as well as B-22 stealth fighter jets.

“The inter-Korean situation is grave now, but this is not the end of the story,” said Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman of the Unification Ministry, the South Korean government agency in charge of relations with North Korea. “We hope North Korea seriously considers our offer to cooperate if it acts like a responsible member of the international community and makes a right choice.”

On Sunday, North Korea announced a “new strategic line,” saying that it was determined to rebuild its economy in the face of international sanctions while simultaneously expanding its nuclear arsenal, which the ruling party called “the nation’s life.”

“Behind all these nuclear threats is his intention to cement North Korea’s status as a nuclear power,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Unlike his father, who liked to make decisions in secret, Kim Jong-un has been remarkably open, calling various state and party meetings and having his decisions announced in their names. In a way, he is spreading responsibility for a possible failure of policy.”

Mr. Kim’s stance has defied American and South Korean officials who have urged him to learn from Myanmar, where changes initiated by new leaders have resulted in billions in debt forgiveness, large-scale development assistance and an influx of foreign investment. If North Korea continues on its current path, they said, it will face more sanctions and deeper isolation.

The North’s nuclear weapons “are neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported, citing a statement adopted at the plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, which was presided over by Mr. Kim.

At the party meeting on Sunday, Mr. Kim appeared to have furthered the party’s control over the military. Pak Pong-ju, an economic technocrat, won full membership in the Politburo, but the best-known top military leaders did not.

Mr. Pak was given more power on Monday, when the North’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, made him premier, a post in charge of the economy.