Pyongyang poker: North Korea’s Marxist dynasty is still at the table

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — We have seen this movie before and it never ends well.

An arrogant and boastful dictator snubs the world and threatens his neighbors. The international community frets in rightful indignation but does little to respond. As tensions rise, the world appears hostage to a bully. And then comes the inevitable spark.

North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile launch on the 4th of July was intended as a double provocation; first showing Pyongyang’s rapidly advancing technology had reached a dangerous new stage, and second as a direct snub to the United States on its Independence Day.

Communist North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung, right, son Kim Jong-Il, center, and grandson Kim Jong-Un.
Communist North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung, right, son Kim Jong-Il, center, and grandson Kim Jong-Un.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un was said to jest, “this is a gift for the Fourth of July.”

While the United Nations Security Council met in urgent session and world powers chided the communist regime in Pyongyang for its provocative saber rattling, the stark reality remains that the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has taken its missile program to a whole new level and gotten away with it.

Before long DPRK missiles can reach American territory, and perhaps within two years, those rockets can be fitted with nuclear warheads. What then?

The North Korean nuclear crisis has been brewing for a generation. Early in the proliferation process in 1994, the United States nearly went to war with the rogue regime in June as the Clinton Administration was on the verge of launching a massive military strike. But months later in October, the same Administration settled on an “Agreed Framework” a dangerous diplomatic deal which took military options off the table in exchange for Pyongyang’s presumed political concessions and promises of non-proliferation.

Pyongyang played the U.S. and world powers as patsies and relentlessly pursed both proliferation and a parallel missile program to launch and deliver nuclear warheads.

On July 4th 2009, the new Obama Administration was shocked by a DPRK salvo of seven rockets menacing Japan and South Korea. But despite tough UN sanctions on its already moribund economy, North Korea has not imploded nor collapsed as most experts have been predicting for decades.

Instead the totalitarian regime under the mercurial Kim Jong-Un has built a threatening nuclear arsenal, which in the eyes of Pyongyang, affords the otherwise isolated DPRK security and regime survival.

So, should the world community nervously allow the DPRK into the nuclear club in the hope that it’s Pyongyang’s political bottom line, or finally confront North Korea during this narrowing window of opportunity?

The DPRK remains a bizarre Marxist monarchy which has ruled the northern half of the peninsula since 1948. Current ruler Kim Jong-Un is the third in the family line which started with his grandfather Kim Il-Sung who started the Korean war in 1950.

Though Pyongyang has never renounced the use of force to reunify the divided peninsula, regime wrath is far deeper to Japan and the U.S. than it is to fellow Korean cousins in the successful and democratic South. Significantly, Seoul, the prosperous South Korean capital, sits dangerously close to the DMZ and thus is held hostage to any military miscalculation.

So can the Trump Administration willfully look the other way to the DPRK’s clear and present danger of nuclear armed missiles which may soon reach the USA?

Realistically the current threat focuses on the DPRK’s medium-term capacity to launch missiles on Japanese territory, especially the Okinawa Islands which also host American military bases.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council, “North Korea’s destabilizing escalation is a threat to all nations in the region and beyond. Their actions are quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”

The People’s Republic of China remains North Korea’s historic comrade and main trading partner. Yet, even Beijing is nervous with Pyongyang’s rogue regime. China still props up the DPRK rulers not so much so that they prosper but to keep them from collapsing. China fears Korean reunification would extend U.S. influence up to its frontier.

But Beijing would be the biggest loser from any Korean nuclear confrontation. China’s extraordinary economic development and commercial trade lifelines could be jolted by a regional conflict. Foreign investments on the Mainland would stagnate. Tourism would disappear. Refugees would flow. China’s hard won socio/economic prosperity is thus held hostage to the whims and antics of Kim Jong-Un’s reckless political tantrums.

There’s still a narrow window for diplomacy in which the U.S., Japan, South Korea and yes, China work together to defuse this crisis. Is Kim really worth it to China? The U.S. should make that case.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]