On New Years Day, North Koreas leader, Kim Jong-un, gave a televised speech to the nation calling for reconciliation with the South.
By JOEL BRINKLEY
Tribune Media Services
The past records of inter-Korean relations, he intoned, show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war. Kim added that he intended to embark on an all-out struggle to rejuvenate the nations destitute economy.
Listening to the New Years speech and similar statements, South Koreas unification minister, Yu Woo-ik said he wondered whether the North Korean establishment will allow changes to be achieved.
Now we know: The answer is no. Instead, we are witnessing a ridiculous melodrama. Kim is threatening to bomb South Korea and the United States. Hes moving troops and missiles, urging Western diplomats to leave the country, and more.
The United States is setting up missile-defense systems in the Pacific and warning that the U.S. will defend South Korea if the North attacks. As part of its annual military exercises with South Korea, the U.S. Air Force flew B-2 stealth bombers within sight of North Korea.
Stop! Cant everyone see this is a show, a performance, nothing more? Weve seen all of this before, though not in such a concentrated, nearly hysterical form.
The important thing to remember is that members of North Koreas military and political establishment view their nation as a national-security state. At least one-third of the norths budget is devoted to military spending. Nothing else matters. The establishment manufactures threats to keep that notion alive. That way those people can live well.
Most of these are middle-aged men, and after former leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011, they were faced with taking direction from a new leader who was in his late 20s. That would be difficult for many people, but particularly so in Asias age-hierarchical culture.
The current drama began when North Korea conducted its third nuclear-weapons test in February. The United Nations Security Council denounced North Korea and voted to impose new sanctions. China, the countrys only true ally, joined the vote.
With that, Kims mandarins seem to have convinced him to abandon his stance as a leader who cared for his people, an antithetical idea for most of them. They deleted the online roller-coaster photos. But they apparently couldnt get Kim to do everything they wanted. So they doctored at least two photos to show him participating in events he didnt actually attend.
Another Photoshopped picture made public last month showed landing craft hitting a beach. But photo editors for several publications found that it had been doctored to show many more landing craft than the North probably has.
What better evidence could there be that were watching a histrionic drama? After all, the North faces no significant threats, from anyone.
At home, Kim is trying to show how tough he is, Michael Green, a former National Security Council officer for East Asia, told me.
After past episodes like this, the West usually agreed to negotiate, and out of that North Korea often got new foreign aid. This is a well-worn pattern. Early this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (a South Korean diplomat) said he believed that tensions had grown so high that negotiations were necessary this time, too, because the North appears to be on a collision course with the international community.
Some experts believe North Koreas posturing is another ploy to obtain foreign aid, and that is certainly one of the goals. But at the same time, this provocative series of events is drawing more international attention than previous inflammatory moments because of Kims apparent aim to show his mandarins that he can be tough.
That, Green said, adds a dangerous and unpredictable element to an otherwise predictable pattern.
Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a former correspondent for The New York Times.