Editor's note: GlobalPost featured this article in "Great Weekend Reads," a free compilation of the week's most colorful stories. To receive Great Weekend Reads by email, let us know at email@example.com.
Update: North and South Korea exchanged fire Tuesday, after dozens of shells fired from the North struck a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border. Two South Korean civilians and two soldiers were killed. North Korea fired on the island again Friday, but no one was injured. GlobalPost's Bradley Martin puts the incident, along with its latest nuclear maneuvering, in context as one of the North's many provocations to extort concessions from the United States and pad the resume of the "Boy General."
BANGKOK, Thailand — There is never anything random about North Korean provocations, so the question that arises from the country’s decision to show off its long-hinted-at uranium-based nuclear technology is: Why now?
A large part of the answer has to be that the regime sees an urgent need to build a foundation of putative achievements for “Comrade Youth Captain” Kim Jong Un — recently promoted to full general — to justify plans for the youngster to succeed his ailing father, Kim Jong Il, as supreme leader.
Jong Un is way too young and inexperienced to have chalked up earth-shaking achievements, whether as statesman or as general. Even his official age is given as only 28 — and that would place his claimed Jan. 8, 1982, birth a biologically impossible three-and-a-half months after Sept. 25, 1981, when his elder brother Jong Chol was reportedly born of the same mother.
As in the case of his father, who contrary to his official age of 68 is actually 69, the successor-designate’s birth date has been adjusted so that the major anniversaries will come in the same years as those of his grandfather, the late founding leader Kim Il Sung, who was born in 1912. Jong Un seems to be only 26 or 27.
Never mind his youth, though. The regime has been building a personality cult in which he appears as a great man whose sweeping futuristic vision is transforming the country’s production processes with “CNC” — computer numerical control.
That sets him up to take credit for what Western visitors to the Yongbyon nuclear site the other day found to be a surprisingly advanced facility for producing nuclear energy with thousands of computer-controlled centrifuges, using uranium-enrichment technology.
Actually the country has alternately and coyly admitted to and denied its pursuit of uranium-enrichment — in contrast to its openly boasted-of plutonium-based nuclear program — since 2002, when Jong Un was only 18 or 19. The program certainly began years earlier than that.
But the regime clearly hopes its subjects won’t do the math. The succession process is troubled, and the boy general badly needs something that will help him earn the respect of the military, whose interests are given official priority behind only those of the leader himself.
The Seoul-based, defector-staffed news organization Daily NK last week quoted recent orders that reportedly came straight from Kim Jong Il and direct that “People’s Army soldiers must become a military of steel of which the whole world is scared.” In the process, military trainers must teach soldiers to “devote our youth according to the high will of the Comrade Youth Captain.”
Daily NK quoted its unnamed North Korean source for this information as saying that “in each meeting there was a lecture about how ‘Comrade Youth Captain watches us always.’” Soldiers, however, “just complain,” the source said. They “worry about how they will spend the winter, what they will eat.” North Korea is expecting a shortfall of 500,000 tons of food in the coming 12 months, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program jointly reported last week.
Assuming North Korea is playing its cards as usual, unveiling the uranium-enrichment program was intended to set up a win-win situation for Kim Junior in the context of the “Six Party Talks” in which the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have negotiated with North Korea on and (currently) off for a reversal of its nuclearization.
If there is no renewal of those talks followed by concessions big enough for Jong Un to boast of, the country’s propaganda apparatus can still argue that under his leadership North Korea has achieved an additional deterrent against attack by the United States and South Korea.
To intensify pressure for concessions and at the same time highlight its deterrence advances, North Korea may well escalate its recent string of provocations, which an international investigative panel said included torpedoing and sinking a South Korea warship on March 26.
The Japanese newspaper Sankei last week predicted a third North Korean nuclear test, citing satellite photos that it said showed tunneling in the area where the 2006 and 2009 tests were held.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”