BEIJING - Two weeks ago when President Obama attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul he paid a visit to the “38th parallel” – the Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas where North and South Korean troops have faced each other for decades.
On the same day, to mark Kim Il-Sung’s centenary, North Korea proposed to “return violence for violence”. A month earlier in Beijing, US and North Korean representatives had exchanged “conciliatory handshakes,” bowing to each other like Beijing Opera singers. Yet barely a month later, the two parties' momentary smiling faces have returned to cold stares.
The Korean peninsula is caught up in a tense situation again because on March 16, the North Korean government announced that in mid-April it would launch the Light Star 3 satellite. This immediately triggered a strong reaction from South Korea, Japan and America, who believe that Pyongyang’s action is obviously a long-range ballistic missile test launch aimed at preparing to fire a nuclear warhead in the future. The three countries jointly started preparations to intercept the ballistic missile.
On March 26 and 27, during the Nuclear Security Summit, the 50-plus heads of state attending the meeting could feel for themselves the growing tension that is spreading across the Korean peninsula.
Ever since Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father as the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army in December, he has been frequently seen visiting and inspecting his armies. History tells us that Kim Jong-Un's actions over the past few months resemble those of the young Japanese leader of the last century: Emperor Hirohito.
In 1926, at the age of 25, Hirohito hastily assumed the throne upon the sudden death of his father Yoshihito. His official title was also promoted from Army and Navy Colonel to Supreme Commander of the Army and Navy of the Great Japanese Empire –the Generalissimo. The young emperor was surrounded by veterans who had fought in the Sino or Russo-Japanese wars. His main job when he first came to the throne was to dress in military uniform and conduct navy inspection “performances.” The Japanese media of the time praised the emperor, trying to turn him into a living god. All Japanese families and offices hung his photo, though ordinary folk wondered how the emperor was managing the nation.
Hirohito Emperor had “authority,” but no “right.” All the great issues were decided at the Imperial Meeting hosted by him. But in practice, the emperor was just listening to the content of the meeting prepared by the military brass prior to the session to be approved without any changes.
That was why the Great Japan Imperial Army expanded steadily and provoked the Mukden Incident and the establishment of the puppet Manchukuo state in 1931, the departure from the League of Nations in 1933, and the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. This form of leadership finally led to a declaration of war on the world's strongest country, the United States, in 1941.
Today’s North Korea looks a lot like Japan before the Second World War.
The danger is that in an isolated country where the leader is authoritative but without the right to lead, he tends to take a particularly hard line. In comparison to the complexity of the moderates, the hardliners’ views can be more easily accepted as “reasonable and credible.”
The moderate North Korean Foreign Minister visited Beijing at the end of February and compromised a little after two days of negotiation with the US, agreeing to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in order to win 240,000 tons of food aid from the United States. For North Korea, which is ushering in on April 15 the "Sun Day" (the 100th anniversary of the birth of late President Kim Il-Sung), this was regarded as a huge diplomatic achievement.
However, the hardliners of the Korean People’s Army simply sniffed and rejected the compromise forged between their Foreign Minister and the arch-enemy, the United States. They declared: “The launch of the Light Star is the only true salute to the nation and around the world to mark the arrival of the great era of Kim Jong-Un!"
As was shown by many documents and witnesses, Emperor Hirohito did not originally want to be an enemy of the US, but he had no right to suppress the military hardliners surrounding him.
Likewise, Kim Jong-Un received the Associated Press in Pyongyang in January, and further reached a consensus on the enriched uranium issue with America through his Foreign Minister. His moves seemed like he would rather shake hands with the US than show fists.
Nevertheless, since the Korean war, the “expulsion of US Imperialism” has always been state doctrine in North Korea. Not to be enemies with America puts the North Korean army in an illegitimate position. If the North Korean regime is to lose its military characteristic, it would also mean substantial disarmament. This is obviously not what the hardliners want to see.
There’s however some difference between Japan of yore and North Korea today. Japan was Asia’s most powerful country at the time, while North Korea is a tiny country surrounded by four major powers - America, China, Japan and Russia. It is impossible for North Korea to invade other countries as Japan tried. But it is nonetheless possible that it might consider an invasion southward.
Since Kim Jong-Un took over power, North Korean provocation of the South has reached the most intense degree of the past half century. The mouthpiece of the Korean Workers' Party, the Labor News, abuses Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, day after day, and accuses him of being a national traitor. "Even if he dies, he is to be pulled out from his grave and cut to pieces!”
Coincidentally, American forces in Korea were originally scheduled to leave on April 17, and return operational control to South Korea. America agreed to postpone this date to 2015 on Lee Myung-Bak’s request two years ago.
But if the 29,500 American soldiers retreat from South Korea in three years time, could the South withstand an attack if the North invades? I consulted my good friend, Dr. Zheng Chenggong, the director of the Sejong Institute, and South Korea's most famous expert on the North Korean regime. His view was notably pessimistic:
"It can be expected in the future that the North’s provocative behavior towards the South will become more frequent. So South Korea must be on full alert and prepared at all times. If it can be said that the greatest achievement of the North Korean military during Kim Jong-Il’s era was to have successfully completed nuclear research and nuclear tests, then in Kim Jong-Un’s era, the North Korean military's measure of success would be the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the miniaturization of nuclear ballistic warheads. The headache for the South has only just begun."
Read the original article in Chinese
*Daisuke Kondo, a former Japanese magazine editor, writes the E.O.'s “View from Japan” column, and is the Vice General Manager of Kodansha Culture Co. in Beijing.