Thursday, November 25, 2010

Victor Cha on PBS's Newshour on the North Korean attacks

Stateside, the North Korean attack on Yŏnpyŏng-do Island [aka Yeonpyeong] has been the lead-in story since it happened. Yesterday's broadcast of NBC Nightly News, for example, spent nearly half of the entire broadcast on the subject. It's natural, then, that PBS's Newshour would call in some big guns to discuss what this all means and what might happen next.

The headliner was Victor Cha, who was on the National Security Council staff under Bush43. He was joined by Sung-Yoon Lee, an adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. Here are some highlights, coming in right after Victor Cha dismissed the idea (put forward by Jimmy Carter) that this is all about Pyongyang trying to get Washington to come and talk to them:
JIM LEHRER: So, then, if it is not aimed at getting people back at a table, what is it -- what is North Korea up to?

VICTOR CHA: I think that we have to sort of think about what's going on internally in the North.

And as your lead piece said, there is a leadership transition that is in progress. We don't know if it is at the end of the leadership transition or at the beginning. We do know it's an accelerated process, because the North Korean leader is quite ill.

And, in North Korea, when you have a new leader -- it's only their third leader -- you have to build a myth and an ideology around this leader based on the strength of the state. And, in that sense, I think a lot of these provocations, and in particular the last one, could be seen not as tit for tat for South Korean exercises or a negotiating ploy.

It's part of establishing the new mythology around this young potential leader for the country.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Lee, how do you see that as a possible motive here?

SUNG-YOON LEE: North Korea does have a great incentive to build up the heir apparent, the 26-year-old, Jong-un, who has no credentials. He was appointed four-star general, yes, recently, but he has no achievements under his belt.

So, North Korea faces a great challenge of power succession, an inherently difficult task, especially for a regime beset by severe economic stresses. So, North Korea does have a need to build him up, yes. And on the eve, in the days and weeks and months leading up to Kim Jong-un's birthday, which is January 8 -- in North Korea, the birthdays of the founding dictator, April 15, and the current leader, February 16, are the biggest national holidays.

So, in the weeks leading up to early January, North Korea will have even a greater incentive to raise the stakes. Conventionally, one would think that resorting to provocative acts, attacking South Korea and so forth, wouldn't be indicative of North Korea's will to return to negotiations.

In the case of North Korea, perversely, this has been an effective way of really painting Washington and Seoul into a corner and driving them to engage North Korea once again.
Anyone who knows what I've been harping about will not be surprised that I don't completely agree with what Drs Cha and Lee and saying. I've made clear that the transition to Kim Jong-un is something Kim Jong-il wants and he has put his son on the road to achieving, but acceptance of that transition is by no means a done deal and, moreover, it has not accelerated to the degree the Western media has made it out to be. Contrary to reports that Kim Jong-un is being deified and held up to the people of North Korea as their next leader, his appearance in official North Korean media is very subdued low-profile. As I've become fond of saying lately, he's the Kim Who Wasn't There.

But that doesn't mean Drs Cha and Lee are wrong. To some degree the Yŏnpyŏng-do attack, I agree, is probably more about scaring cash, goods, and services out of Seoul's pockets. But it is more likely the attack is about shoring up support. Not support for Kim Jong-un, but hardening support for the military side of the regime. It's about preserving their power and prestige — or even strengthening it — by showing their might and how much they're needed. North Korea has all but spelled this out in very recent editorials saying that North Korea must strike a blow to the imperialists in the name of Songun policy.

They have the power to wag the dog. They have the power to rally the people in the face of an enemy threat (which they engineered). They have means at their disposal that the political apparatus does not, and the party apparatchiki had best not forget that during any transitions that might occur in North Korea's future. In the scheme of things, therefore, Kim Jong-un's role is incidental. This is not about him.

While Drs Cha and Lee bring some good insight, they ultimately offer no good solution. The end of the discussion is that Seoul is in such a bad position that we really can't do anything. North Korea has made it clear that doing nothing invites aggression the same as doing something, and we fear that really doing something will invite even more aggression. 

Writing in the International Herald-Tribune, Professor Andrei Lankov does much the same thing: He paints an accurate picture of what's really going on, but admits there is no real solution (more on that here). 

In the wake of the Ch'ŏnan sinking, I also counseled a non-military response. But North Korea's attack on undisputed ROK territory and the shelling of civilians makes clear that may no longer be prudent. We need an aggressive response, a military one, or perhaps a non-military one that also takes aim at China and its role with the monster they've created (more on that later, too). 

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