By Arthur I. Cyr
Strange things are happening in North Korea, which is nothing new. This time, however, developments apparently reflect divisions within the leadership of the isolated totalitarian regime. Conceivably, this could spark a renewed Korean War.
Ri Yong-ho, a powerful military figure and until recently a close ally of young North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, has been relieved of command, allegedly due to illness. This explanation is generally discounted. In a May statement, Kim criticized those in the military for "developing a taste for money" amid reports of corruption.
Kim has also assumed the rank of marshal of the Democratic People's Republic, the latest in a series of celebratory titles that sycophants attach to his name. Whether he is solidifying power, or actually being weakened, is not clear.
Undeniable is that for several years North Korea has been acting erratically in military matters. In November 2010, North Korean artillery bombarded Yeonpyeong Island, held by South Korea. The island lies just south of the maritime boundary dividing the two states.
In the same vicinity in March 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean ship Cheonan, following a skirmish the previous year between naval gunboats from the two countries. An independent international commission concluded that physical evidence confirmed North Korea had sunk the vessel, but Pyongyang angrily denied the charge.
In late February this year, North Korea agreed yet again to cease its on-again, off-again nuclear program. In joint announcements coordinated with the State Department, the regime agreed to halt enrichment of uranium and construction of weapons and permit international inspection of nuclear facilities.
Yet in April, Pyongyang tested a missile, preceded by the usual bombastic propaganda broadcasts. The launch ended in embarrassing failure. This erratic North Korean behavior over time strongly implies infighting at the top.
President Barack Obama's instinct for moderate language and international cooperation is welcome, but so is his caution regarding North Korea. Years of diplomatic flexibility toward Pyongyang has yielded little beyond sporadic slowdown in nuclear development.
Washington should emphasize economic leverage, which is considerable. In the past, well-aimed economic pressure on North Korea has paid off. The George W. Bush administration declared Banco Delta Asia (BDA), based in Macau, a renegade institution assisting illegal activities by Pyongyang in the global black market.
U.S. businesses were banned from dealing with BDA, and others followed suit. Macau government authorities froze $25 million in North Korean funds. The money was released following North Korean concessions.
Pyongyang has continued to support North-South commercial cooperation through the Gaeseong industrial zone located just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Washington should back up Seoul in offers to expand this collaboration, in return for specific military and other concessions.
During the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave consistent support to cultural and educational exchanges with the Soviet Union. Koreans have a rich, diverse cultural history, and harsh division of the peninsula dates only since 1945. Exchanges should be encouraged.
Eisenhower also provides an important lesson in the realities of war. Stalled Korean War armistice talks were quickly, successfully concluded following extraordinary obliteration bombing of North Korea. Ike knew how to get the job done, ruthlessly when necessary.
Obama should continue to emphasize U.S. commitment to South Korea, and remind everyone of the high stakes involved.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.