NK ratchets up tension amid murky ties
A spate of fiery rhetoric by North Korea and a visit by leader Kim Jong-il to a key border military site has raised worries over possible further provocations by the recalcitrant regime while casting doubt on the recent warming trend lasting.
North Korean state media reported that Kim, accompanied by his youngest son and heir, Kim Jong-un, visited the 4th Corps of the Korean People’s Army in Haeju along the West Sea last week. The corps was behind last year’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
The visit coincided with multiple threats from Pyongyang to attack the South in response to military drills that Seoul held to mark the first anniversary of the shelling. The Lee Myung-bak administration said the exercises were to test the military's defense posture, while the North insisted they were provocative.
The fresh barbs underscored a mixed bag of tactics as the two Koreas try to ease tensions in a bid to resume multilateral negotiations on the North’s nuclear program.
During the visit to military headquarters, Kim shook the hands of commanding officers and rallied troops. Raising concern was the fact that the “Dear Leader” visited the same site shortly before the Nov. 23, 2010 artillery attack that killed two marines and two civilians.
Meanwhile, its state-run media threatened to turn Cheong Wa Dae into a “sea of fire” if any bullet strayed into northern territory.
The headquarters is also significant as it is headed by General Kim Kyuk-shik, Commander of the 4th Corps, thought to have been deeply involved in the shelling as well as the deadly sinking of the Cheonan warship eight months earlier.
“It is natural for the South Korean government and military to be as vigilant as possible,” said Park Young-ho, an analyst with the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). “Seoul might sense that the North is looking for another opportunity to launch a provocation.”
Tensions have been high since the attacks that prompted Seoul to halt aid to the impoverished state. But the atmosphere has cooled somewhat as the sides have been in talks since July on how to resume six-party denuclearization talks. Pyongyang walked away from the multilateral forum in 2009 in response to international sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests.
Analysts say the North is doing all it can to bolster the succession to Jong-un, including trying to secure aid through negotiations. Some suggest further provocations could be nigh if such talks fall through.
The Lee administration, seeking regional stability ahead of parliamentary and presidential polls next year, has begun implementing a more “flexible” policy on the North, including the sending of civilian-level food aid as well increased cultural exchanges.
KINU expert Park said the North’s eyebrow-raising moves while a cause for concern could be tactical maneuvering and Pyongyang may be deterred from military provocation by Washington and Beijing, which are clearly looking to avoid a repeat of last year’s tension.
“The North could be trying to induce even more flexible measures from Seoul, such as the provision of humanitarian aid in the form of rice.” He added that Kim Jong-un’s presence during the visit allowed him to further consolidate support among the military elite.
Meanwhile, the North’s media has picked up its vigorous coverage of the political upheaval in the South, which analysts say is an apparent bid to interfere in domestic politics in the run-up next year’s elections. Various print and online outlets continue to blast the South’s conservatives for the contentious passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, calling it a “pro-American flunky” deal.
“Pyongyang is using every possible opportunity to cause more domestic disturbance,” Park said. “At the same time it is looking to get more flexible measures from Seoul.”