Another day, another dice with Armageddon. For analysts and others watching the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea these are compelling times as one major threat after another spews out of Pyongyang.
Last week it would be “an act of war” if any North Korean vessel was stopped on the high seas as a result of the United Nations-mandated sanctions regime; then came “reliable intelligence” reported in the Japanese media that the North Koreans were planning a missile test, to be fired off in the direction of Hawaii on July 4, prompting United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates to say that he had ordered the deployment of “defensive measures” around the islands.
If that wasn’t enough a report carried by North Korea’s official Central News Agency recently (June 27) accused the “warmongers of the Japanese aggression forces” of sending spy planes over North Korean territory. The agency stated that any further incursions would be “mercilessly shot down”.
Coming from almost any other country on earth, comments and actions such as these would be incendiary, and would have delegates scurrying to the United Nations to find some way of heading off what would almost certainly be an act of major aggression, but with North Korea nothing is at it seems.
Even so the Pyongyang leadership is keeping North Asia at a high level of tension - which is almost certainly the limit of its intentions - in the hope that it will drag more concessions out of the currently stalled Six Party Talks on its nuclear weapons program.
Just how much of all this is rhetoric and should the West be at all concerned the DPRK’s attitude of super belligerence? The country definitely has nuclear weapons - how many is not clear - and it is developing the means to deliver them, even if this is under the flimsy guise of a space program, so this is not something that can be ignored. However, North Asia analyst and researcher Jeffrey Robertson believes that while the Western media loves a good crisis, there is little to fear from North Korea while “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il remains at the helm.
In a recent address to the ACT branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Robertson discounted much of the reporting on North Korea as speculations, interspersed with a few “facts” from dubious sources. He cited the recent example of a statement by the Vice Chairman of the UN Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General Patrick Cartwright that North Korea would have the capability of sending ballistic missiles to the American West Coast in three to five years.
“What wasn’t reported was that very similar predictions have been made in the past which have failed to materialise,” he said.
Robertson does not discount the danger from North Korea, but puts the ultimate flashpoint further down the track, specifically when Kim Jong-il leaves the scene.
That, he says, will represent a very real danger because while Kim is 67 and clearly ailing, the leadership appears to have no specific succession plan in place.
This is in stark contrast to the situation in 1994 when Kim’s father, Kim il-sung died. For years beforehand the two had been seen together at formal events - the opening of factories, military parades and so on. There was never any doubt that Kim Jong-il was the designated successor. Robertson says nothing like that has been put in place this time.
Kim Jong-il has three sons: the eldest, Kim Jong-nam has always had a playboy image, and disgraced himself when he was arrested at Tokyo International Airport travelling on a false Dominican Republic passport and using a Chinese name. He was eventually deported to China, an embarrassing incident that led to his father cancelling a visit to the People’s Republic. Needless to say Jong-nam, who reportedly lives in Macau and is a regular figure at the gaming tables, is out of favour.
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.