Earlier this month, North Korea's hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Un, revoked the Korean War armistice, signed 60 years ago in July 1953.
Revoking the armistice could signal a resumption of all-out hostilities. South Korea, the U.S., Japan and the United Nations recognize that. Given North Korea's record for repetitive, hot-headed threats, however, diplomats have reason to doubt imminent dire consequences. The Kim dynasty, a Marxist monarchy ruling North Korea's workers' paradise for three generations, has disclaimed or renounced the 1953 armistice at least a half-dozen times in the last two decades.
Since assuming power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, Jong Un has continued the dynastic tradition of threatening massive devastation. In February of this year, his regime threatened the U.S. with nuclear attack. In October 2012, while aboard a South Korean express train from Seoul to Cheonan, I saw a television news flash that informed me and my fellow passengers that North Korea had just threatened South Korea with nuclear immolation. Indeed, it appeared that everyone in that car had heard the threat before, ad nauseum.
South Korea and its allies have offered Pyongyang economic carrots, loans, oil, food and medical aid, and co-development projects designed to show the North that cooperation in lieu of conflict brings rewards.
Critics contend that the Kim regime steals the food aid and treats the economic incentives as money successfully extorted from its enemies. Proponents contend it acts as a brake on the North's worst impulses. Despite the latest revocation of the armistice, diplomats noted this week that so far North Korea has continued to permit South Korean managers to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to work in Kaesong. Kaesong is a North Korean special economic area where North Koreans work for southern manufacturers. Keeping Kaesong open is read by proponents of economic incentives as a signal that the rhetorical bellicosity is just bombast.
But treating North Korean ritual bellicosity and Cold War-era communist pomposity as merely theatrical ploys in an extortion shakedown would be a fatal error, for an appalling legacy of malice and slaughter lurks behind the Kim regime's aggressive antics.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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