‘NK provocations born from stroke‘
North Korea’s recent hard line behavior took root four years ago following a stroke suffered by late leader Kim Jong-il, a long trajectory that makes continued recalcitrance all the more likely, a former U.S. official warned Thursday.
Evans Revere, who served as acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said he was told as much during a dinner with a North Korean diplomat in late 2008, months after Kim suffered a stroke that reportedly left him gravely ill.
That meeting came the day after then-U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who had signaled he would engage the North, was voted in.
“I gave him the best argument I could for the real hope and expectation that we could put things on a different track. But the answer I got back was ‘It’s out of the hands of people like us (North Korean diplomats),’” Revere said in an interview.
“The regime was already hunkering down, getting ready for what could be a very difficult, complicated transition. They were already starting to move in a much tougher and more hard line direction. We’re seeing the result of all that now.”
The North conducted long-range missile and nuclear tests shortly after Obama took office.
Watchers say after the stroke, Kim fast-tracked the succession process of his youngest son Kim Jong-un, whose fledgling regime has been dialing up tensions since taking over after his father’s December death.
Following its latest rocket launch earlier this month, which led to a U.N. Security Council presidential statement condemning it, Pyongyang has reportedly been making preparations for a third nuclear test at a site in the northeast of the country. China, the North’s benefactor, surprised some by quickly backing the statement.
The North has threatened to retaliate against such moves.
The launch, which Pyongyang insists was to put a satellite into orbit for scientific reasons, also broke a deal with Washington under which it stood to gain food aid in return for moves to slow its nuclear weapons program.
Analysts say the Obama administration is seeking to break the North’s pattern of raising tensions and negotiating for concessions. Seoul, meanwhile, modified its rules of engagement to respond to further provocations following the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Revere, who has met with North Korean officials in recent weeks, said the behavior has brought the North to a critical and dangerous juncture.
He predicted if the North carried out the rocket launch, it would likely encounter a strong response from an increasingly frustrated international community.
“It’s a delicate moment. North Korea needs to step back and assess the damage they are doing. Based on past experience, they won’t. So it’s going to get a bit difficult,” Revere, now a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, said.
He added Washington would be under more pressure to find other options to deal with the North such as new sanctions to undermine the regime.
This week, Pyongyang threatened to “blow up” Seoul for the Lee Myung-bak administration’s alleged defamation of the North’s April 15 celebrations for the 100th anniversary of country founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.
“It is very important that North Korea has no doubt whatsoever that South Korea is prepared to defend its territory and people. It’s also important for the United States to support its ally,” he said.