World

Kim Jong-un’s plutonium dream

By J Brooks Spector 3 April 2013

North Korea’s announcement on Tuesday that it plans to reopen its Soviet-era reactor, capable of breeding plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons, at its Yongbyon facility, has, not surprisingly, already garnered dismay from the US and UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon. On the face of it, it appears that all The Young Leader really wants is respect. What is of concern, however, is the price he says he is willing to pay for that respect, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Just a few weeks ago, things seemed to be looking up slightly with the famously isolated country of North Korea and its equally famous, rather quixotic Young Leader – Kim Jong-un. Kim had succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, as ruler of this hereditary communist kingdom. And Kim #2 had succeeded his father, Kim Il-Sung. This original Kim had been North Korea’s first leader, taking full power in his new nation after the Soviet Red Army had taken control of the territory from the defeated Japanese Imperial Army at the end of World War II.

As part of that Japanese surrender, the Korean Peninsula had been divided at the 38th line of latitude, with the US Army taking control to the South and the Russians in the North, until permanent arrangements for the country’s future were further defined. The Korean War began in 1950 when the North Korean army invaded the South (with Stalin’s visible encouragement), after the American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, apparently unintentionally, had defined the American strategic perimeter in the Pacific as not including South Korea.

In reaction to this invasion, the UN responded with a military force under the new international doctrine of collective security. The resulting war, officially termed a “police action’, was, in reality, years of fierce fighting that drew in some 38 nations under the UN flag, while China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea. When the fighting ended, the cease fire line – the DMZ – roughly following the original 38th parallel line of control, became a formal demarcation line but not an international boundary. As a result it remains a continuing point of international friction – and a constant potential flashpoint for conflict.

A half decade ago, in 2007, after torturous, lengthy, complicated international multiparty negotiations, North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility – a reactor capable of breeding plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons, but less suitable for electrical power generation, despite claims by the North Korean government. This agreement was thought at the time to herald a period where North Korea would slowly begin bending its international posture towards compliance with the applicable UN resolutions – and the hopes of South Korea and the West. When Kim Jong-un took authority in the North, there were even hopes his accession to power would point to a new, more normal and reasonable international relations posture on the part of Pyongyang.

However, North Korea continued developing missile technology, as well as testing nuclear devices preparatory to the creation of a nuclear weapon that could be married to a guided missile, that, together, could wreak devastation on the South, on neighbouring Japan and American bases in both East Asian nations – and even, potentially, American territories in the Pacific. The most recent test of a rocket, ostensibly to launch an artificial satellite into Earth orbit, but more reasonably thought to be a guided missile test, drew strong international criticism. And last year as well, a South Korean patrol boat was sunk by what is presumed to have been a North Korean mine or other explosive device. North Korea had also carried out a limited but provocative shelling of a small island controlled by the South.

Then, in the early months of 2013, North Korea began a series of increasingly bellicose pronouncements, threatening devastation on the US, complete with video simulations of an attack on major public buildings in Washington, DC. It also threatened attacks on South Korea and assailed the alliance between South Korea and the US. Meanwhile, in response to these provocations, a South Korea-US joint military exercise has been taking place. This time it has come complete with simulated bombing runs by F-22 strike jets and B-2 stealth bombers, presumably to make a sharp point or two in the direction of Pyongyang’s leaders.

When the idiosyncratic – and unpredictable – Dennis Rodman, together with the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition b-ball troupe visited North Korea in the company of a film and video company that was presumably doing a doccie on everyday life in North Korea, some observers had begun to assume that this was an obscure, difficult to read, but barely discernible sign that North Korea was making a hesitant, slow, leisurely turn towards international norms. Concurrently, some observers also detected faint signs of economic reforms designed to make everyday life in the people’s paradise just a bit more tolerable for anyone not part of the country’s political nomenklatura or its top military hierarchy.

Then, North Korea announced on Tuesday that it plans to reopen its Soviet-era reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, potentially allowing it to bank additional fissile material. Experts say that if nothing goes wrong, this reactor could conceivably produce a stream of plutonium within six months from the date it began operations. This announcement has, not surprisingly, already garnered dismay from the US and UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, among others, with the latter urging Russia and China help keep North Korea from carrying out its newest threat.

The North Korean announcement was broadcast by the North’s official KCNA news agency, and it comes against the backdrop of the growing litany of  threats from Pyongyang, the latest of which was Saturday’s statement that it had entered a “state of war” with the South. 

In response to the harsh words from the North, the recently elected South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, vowed in return to respond swiftly should any threatened attack from the North materialise, although the United States said that – so far – it actually sees no tangible signs of a North Korean mobilisation for such an attack.  Or, as White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday, “I would note that despite the harsh rhetoric we are hearing from Pyongyang, we are not seeing changes to the North Korean military posture, such as large-scale mobilisations and positioning of forces.”

As to why this is happening now, the short answer is that no one, save perhaps “The Young Leader” and his generals, knows for sure. There are three competing theories among Western observers:

First of all, there is the view that Kim, as a young man with no discernible military experience, is provoking this to impress some heretofore unimpressed senior generals and thereby secure his control over the government and the military.

On the other hand, others suggest Kim is being pushed by those same generals into such a show of bravado to meet their needs to maintain their preeminence in North Korea’s power structure.

There is a third theory as well. In this view it is a show of hostility designed to provoke threats and rejoinders from the US, South Korea and the rest as an effort to get a weary North Korean populace to rally behind the Kim government as the embodiment of Korean virtues in the face of foreign threats to its survival. 

The problem, of course, is that nobody actually knows because there is so little knowledge of the machinery of decision-making in Pyongyang, or the psyche and world view of one Kim Jong-un. Maybe what he really wants, besides an autographed basketball from Michael Jordan, is lots of respect – from his generals, his people, the government in the South, and the powers that be in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and at the UN. And all of that is a very tall order, and one that may have some very real consequences if things go wrong. DM

Read more:

  • North Korea vows to restart shuttered nuclear reactor that can make bomb-grade plutonium, in the Washington Post
  • U.S. Sees North Korea Blustering, Not Acting, at the New York Times
    North Korea Says It Will Restart Reactor, at the New York Times
  • Rumblings from below – A sealed and monstrously unjust society is changing in ways its despotic ruler may not be able to control, at the Economist

Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) and military officers watch a live shell firing drill to examine war fighting capabilities of artillery sub-units, whose mission is to strike DaeYeonpyeong island and Baengnyeong island of South Korea, in the western sector of the front line in this picture released by the North’s official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 14, 2013. REUTERS/KCNA

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