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Analysis: Expert North Korea watcher puts the latest bluster in historical context.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — History offers some guidance on what to expect as North Korea threatens to ”wage a sacred war” against the South Korean government and its supporters. In all the decades since the June 25, 1950, start of the Korean War, the North has not repeated its all-out invasion of the South.
That would be more reassuring if the regime had not repeatedly shown its determination to avoid coming across as a habitual bluffer, a paper tiger.
Although short of all-out war, both of those attacks — like others earlier such as the 1968 capture of the US Navy spy ship Pueblo — were major and deadly provocations.
The government of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and conservative South Korean news media organizations, the two groups specifically targeted by the latest threats, will need to be vigilant.
The current rhetoric stems from North Korea's resentment of South Korean comments showing contempt for a huge and lengthy celebration commemorating the late North Korean founding dictator Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, which was April 15.
The centerpiece of the celebration was to be a rocket launch — supposedly putting a satellite into orbit. In the view of South Korea and the United States, it was a test of the North’s developing missile technology. In a major humiliation, the launch fizzled. Taking note of that, South Korean government and media comments also questioned the priority that the North throughout its history has given to circuses over bread, and guns over butter.
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“Traitor Lee Myung Bak,” the North’s Foreign Ministry spokesman complained in a statement issued Sunday, “let loose a string of such malignant invectives that can be uttered only by a shark — that the North might spend a ridiculous amount of money for the celebrations of the centenary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung, and that the amount of fund[s] would be enough to buy a large quantity of food.”
In fact, in an April 16 radio address Lee’s estimated that the regime could have used the money it spent on the birthday bash to buy a six-year supply of corn for its perennially hungry population.
Because Lee and his supporters desecrated a holiday so sacred it amounted to “the great jubilee in human history,” the North’s military and civilians alike “are shaking with irrepressible resentment,” the ministry’s statement said. “They are now eagerly waiting for the issue of an order so that they may mercilessly punish the traitor.”
If there is reason to hope nothing will come of the current threats it is that phrase about waiting for “an order.”
On Friday, the regime packed Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square with neat rows of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians crying passionately for the blood of Southerners. Spokespersons for various groups in the North were quoted as saying that new leader Kim Jong Un had only to give the order and they would follow.
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In other words, as has happened quite a few times over the decades, the gigantic weapon of a furious army and people has been cocked, and this time it is up to Kim — a 20-something grandson of Kim Il Sung — to pull the trigger by issuing the order to go ahead if he chooses to do so.
Not mentioning that crucial element of awaiting an order, though, was a message Monday from a unit of the military called the “special operation action group,” which warned that “the special actions of our revolutionary armed forces will start soon to meet the reckless challenge of the group of traitors.”
“Targets are the Lee Myung Bak group of traitors, the arch criminals and the group of rat-like elements including conservative media destroying the mainstay of the fair public opinion,” said the statement, released by the North’s Korean Central News Agency. (A search of KCNA articles published since Janurary 1996 found no other mention of a special operation action group.)
“Once the above-said special actions kick off, they will reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocation to ashes in three or four minutes, ” the statement said. The actions will employ “unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style. Our revolutionary armed forces do not make empty talk.”
Among grievances the special operation action group mentioned were South Korean military boasts last Thursday that the South’s newest missiles can reach any part of North Korea — including, in the words of the North’s statement, “striking the supreme headquarters through an office window.”
The announcement included a media target list, for involvement in a campaign to “build up public opinion in favor of the rats’ group.” The list included broadcasters KBS, MBC and YTN, as well as national daily newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, which it pointedly noted has its headquarters in downtown Seoul.
Dong-A Ilbo explained that what put the newspaper atop the list was an April 17 article quoting a South Korean intelligence source on the results of reading Kim Jong Un’s lips as the young leader spoke with three senior military brass. The lip reading was done from a telecast by North Korea’s Central TV station showing the four reviewing a military parade on April 15.
The paper doesn’t come out and say so, but some of Kim Jong Un’s quotations make him appear like a kid playing under the Christmas tree with his new toys. He “smiled whenever vehicles with ballistic missiles passed, including the new long-range missile, and said, ‘Great. Great.’”
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The threatened special actions are supposed to be unprecedented. That would seem to rule out another missile or nuclear test (although either or both could be in the cards separately) or an assassination raid on South Korea’s presidential Blue House, as was attempted in 1968. Since Kim Jong Un’s image polishers have attempted to portray him as info-tech-savvy, a cyber attack seems one strong possibility — although in that case the threatened “ashes” might be figurative.
Meanwhile, whether it follows through with this particular threat or not, the multi-tasking regime probably has succeeded at least for the time being in distracting a great many of its subjects from grinding poverty and official repression and corruption, channeling their anger away from mainifest policy failures and toward external enemies.
Bradley K. Martin, author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," is the 2011-2012 C.W. Snedden Chair in Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks