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Monday, June 6, 2011     GET REAL

Target practice in Korea: Taking aim once again at American gullibility

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — It did seem like a fun idea at the time. Why not hoist huge photos of Kim Jong-Il and son and heir Kim Jong-Un and have young South Korean Army soldiers fire away at them for target practice?


A target depicting North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung, left, his son and current leader Kim Jong-Il was used for military drills by the South Korean reserves.     
Reuters/Park Jung-ho/Nocut News

Like lofting balloons over the North bearing leaflets with great stories on the sordid histories of North Korea’s dynastic leaders, this one just didn’t strike the North Koreans as funny. No sooner did they get word about it than they were off on a rhetorical bender, promising the same “retaliatory military strikes” that they have said they will deploy against those so bold as to launch the dreaded balloons. The North Korean language in the case of the use of images of the “Dear Leader” and son was particularly harsh. The Korean People’s Army and the Worker Peasant Red Guards “will launch practical and overall retaliatory military actions to wipe out the group of traitors at a stroke,” said a military spokesman.

On top of that, the spokesman called on “South Korean puppet authorities” to apologize “for the hideous provocation” and “guarantee,” never again.

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Strong words indeed — enough perhaps to account for why the North has disdained South Korea’s rather lame overtures for an inter-Korean summit in which the conservative President Lee Myung-Bak was evidently all too eager to go hat in hand to Pyongyang begging for reconciliation. At least, that was North Korea’s version.

The real story is that North Korea did not release its embarrassing version of Lee’s pleas, through negotiators in Beijing, for a summit until getting wind of the desecration of the images of Dear Leader and son. That, on top of South Korea’s persistent demands for an “apology” for last year’s sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, was enough to persuade Kim Jong-Il to heap scorn on Lee by making him look like a hypocritical beggar.

Curious though it was, however, the tale of Lee’s humiliation, like so many other episodes in North-South relations, is likely to blow over in the usual flurry of headlines and statements and political caterwauling. The bottom line is the North now has another avenue that it’s pursuing in search of aid and empathy.

This one, it seems, is far more promising for Pyongyang and infuriating to Seoul than the revelation that Lee would like to follow in the footsteps to Pyongyang of the two previous presidents whose soft-line Sunshine policy he has gone to great lengths to reverse.

North Korea’s ace is the relationship the North’s skilled negotiators appear to have struck up with the U.S. envoy on human rights to North Korea, Robert King. His quick trip there, on a “fact-finding” mission about the North’s need for food and other forms of aid, was only the beginning.

Back in Washington, King is saying the North Koreans would like to have him back there — not just to talk about food but to get into the topic of “human rights,” the whole reason for whatever he’s doing. King thinks he’s made headway just by getting into North Korea for an initial visit — an opportunity, he notes, that was consistently denied to the United Nations’ rapporteur on human rights.

A North Korean official, he said, specifically invited him back to talk about “human rights,” and he’s “looking forward to the opportunity.” In other words, while spurning President Lee’s hesitant overtures in no uncertain terms, North Korea is happy to chat it up with a representative of the regime that’s seen as pulling the strings on the South Korean marionette.

The question South Koreans are asking, as they’ve asked regularly over the years, is how do North Korean negotiators manage to con their American interlocutors so easily. Here’s a regime that has time and again rejected, deflected and derided any attempt at confirming the most egregious violations of human rights, and King apparently thinks he’s going to get somewhere by accepting another invitation to Pyongyang.

I remember one visitor, returning from Pyongyang, when asked how it was that North Korean hosts and guides and minders managed to create such favorable impressions on their visitors, shot back, “It must be the water.”

Whatever it is, King’s got South Korean officials extremely nervous, if not infuriated, by giving the impression that he really thinks he’s going to get anywhere in talks with the North Koreans. The whole goal of the North Korean game, they believe, is to dig a ditch between North Korea and the U.S. — and relegate the South to the role of the “puppet” to whom there’s no point in talking about much of anything. King himself finally acknowledged what had been clear for some time, that South Korea really opposes U.S. moves to resume providing food and fertilizer to North Korea. The U.S. cut off aid in tandem with the South in the early months of Lee’s administration, but pressure is mounting fast for a shift in U.S. policy.

All the North has to do, besides bring King back on a return mission, is get North Korea to agree on yet another elaborate plan on “monitoring” whatever happens to the aid.

If North Korea can get King to come back on the pretense of talking about “human rights,” it’s a safe bet the North Koreans will come up with a scheme for addressing what King has called “our serious concerns about monitoring and outstanding issues related to our previous food program.”

Among these issues is what the North Koreans did with 20,000 tons of food that the few Americans who were there never got to monitor as promised. They were ordered out of the country more than two years ago before that food was ever distributed. Another issue is the North Koreans don’t want any Korean speakers on the American team — no need to have these interlopers snooping around chatting casually with someone with an inkling of what’s going on.

While seeming to press for real change, King came up with a beaut that can only be viewed as a bit of a joke. He wanted his interrogators on some congressional committee in Washington to know that, this time, the food would not be for “the elite.”

How’s that again? No way would the North Koreans get rice this time, he explained. Rather, he said, they would get stuff with “nutritional value” that the big boys at the head table might not want but would fulfill the needs of the starving masses.

Just what kind of food that might be is not clear. I remember in Vietnam during the Vietnam War the United States used to send bulgar wheat when rice was not available. People didn’t really like it but ate it when they had to. Could North Korea be in for a dose of bulgar?

Behind all the nonsense, however, one thing is clear. North Korea is absolutely right when its all-purpose defense spokesman remarked, “There is no need to sit face to face with the Lee group of traitors hell-bent on the confrontation with fellow countrymen.”

No need at all, when it seems North Korea is slowly drawing the United States into a face-saving formula for all it needs. Meanwhile, said the spokesman, it’s “necessary to settle accounts” with South Korea “only by force of arms.”

Here indeed was affirmation, as South Korea’s Yonhap news agency suggested, that the use of images of North Korean leaders as targets was “related to the North’s recent claims that the South has secretly proposed to hold inter-Korean summit talks.”

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