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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

North Korea’s Restraint May Signal Policy Shift -

Kim Jong-ilImage via WikipediaNorth Korea’s Restraint May Signal Policy Shift -

SEOUL, South Korea — A day after North Korea backed off threats of violent retaliation for South Korean artillery drills, analysts and policy makers in Seoul said Tuesday that the North’s unexpected restraint might signal, at least for now, that the North Koreans were shifting away from recent military provocations.

North Korea had vowed retaliation if South Korea went ahead with its planned live-fire drills on Yeonpyeong Island, where a North Korean artillery barrage last month killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians. But when the South defied those threats and held a 94-minute drill on Monday, the North’s official news agency reversed itself by saying it was “not worth reacting” to the exercises.

Political analysts could only speculate about the sudden change in tone by North Korea, one of the world’s most closed and secretive societies. They said that a visit to North Korea by an unofficial American envoy, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, that came at the same time might have helped. Indeed, the North seemed to offer Mr. Richardson an olive branch with its willingness to allow United Nations inspectors back in to monitor its nuclear program.

“I do commend the South Korean government for their restraint, for their legitimacy in pursuing this military drill,” Mr. Richardson told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday. “And I commend the North Korean leadership for not retaliating.”

Most political analysts in Seoul said it was most likely that the North had decided to bide its time while waiting to see whether its attack last month would press South Korea and the United States into talks, and possibly even concessions. They said this was a recurring pattern in the North’s unique brand of brinkmanship: making a provocation in hopes of forcing the other side to negotiate.

Despite North Korea’s propaganda of proud independence, Korea watchers noted that the country was desperate to obtain food aid from the South, especially with the hard winter months ahead, and possibly even win security guarantees from Washington as the North’s ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, tries to engineer the succession of his untested third son, Kim Jong-un.

“North Korea was thinking very strategically,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “I think they are trying to create the mood for dialogue.”

South Korea had defiantly pushed forward with the drills, despite warnings that they might cause an escalation and calls by China and Russia to cancel them. By refusing to bite at what appeared to be a military challenge by the South, the North was perhaps hoping to cast itself as the more reasonable of the Koreas, particularly in the eyes of its traditional backers in Beijing and Moscow, some analysts said.

The North’s restraint may be tested again this week. The South Korean Army and Air Force plan a military drill on the mainland near the border between the two countries on Thursday, The Associated Press reported. The training, while routine, will involve a larger than normal number of troops and weapons, The A.P. reported.

Some analysts have suggested the North might be trying to repair its image among the South Korean public, which reacted with outrage to the civilian deaths on Yeonpyeong. Some analysts said the North played a sometimes sophisticated game of wooing public opinion in the South, aimed at winning support for economic aid and other engagement policies.

“The world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of a war,” the North’s news agency said Monday.

Still, it is unclear how much success the North’s strategy will have, particularly in bringing its opponents back to negotiations. The United States has refused to engage in bilateral talks with the North, insisting that all dialogue take place within the six-nation process that also includes China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. But the United States, Japan and South Korea have also rejected recent calls by the other three nations for an emergency restart of the talks without signs that the North is willing to dismantle its nuclear program, something it appears unwilling to do.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said: “When and if the North Koreans are ever serious about living up to their obligations, then we can think about restarting six-party talks.

“But the belligerent actions that the North Koreans have demonstrated over the past many weeks I don’t think provide anybody the confidence that they’re even remotely ready to resume in a responsible way those talks.”

If the North feels that South Korea and the United States are still giving it the cold shoulder, then it could strike again. Analysts said the strike was almost certain to be unpredictable and unconventional.

That was true of last month’s shelling, which South Korean officials said surprised them because they had not expected an attack on civilian areas. “Their provocations are beyond our imaginations,” said Gen. Han Min-koo, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Analysts say these provocations reflect the increasing desperation of the Communist North, which needs the resumption of aid shipments from the wealthier, capitalist South to prop up its impoverished state-run economy.

South Korean aid has trickled nearly to a halt under President Lee Myung-bak, who came to power three years ago with the demand that the North reciprocate by ending its nuclear weapons program. North Korea angrily refused and began a series of provocations that included the sinking in March of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors (for which the North has denied responsibility), last month’s shelling of Yeonpyeong and the recent revelation of an expanded uranium-enrichment program at its Yongbyon complex.

Some analysts said the North also sought a peace treaty with the United States that would recognize the government’s right to exist. Neither the United States nor the Koreas signed a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, which came to a halt with a cease-fire.

“North Korea has specific reasons for negotiations, and Kim Jong-il is seeking the end of hostilities with the United States, recognition of his government and the survival of his regime,” said Chung Dong-young, an opposition South Korean lawmaker. Some political analysts said it might also be tough for Mr. Lee’s government to make concessions to the North after the president faced such withering public criticism for what has been seen here as weak responses to the shelling of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan.

“The Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island changed public opinion,” said Song Dae-sung, president of the Sejong Institute, a private research group. “The people want a harder line toward North Korea.”

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