Pyongyang's 'Never-ending story'

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) December 27, 2012

"The Neverending Story" is a German fantasy novel about a parallel world being destroyed by a force known as "the Nothing" -- an entity representative of people's lack of imagination in the real world. The successful launch Dec. 12 by North Korea of a long-range missile has become a "never-ending story" of its own -- i.e., one of a failed U.S. foreign policy representative of a lack of imagination in dealing with Pyongyang in the real world.

Despite international pressure, the North's leadership ordered the launch, knowing doing so violated its international agreements. Those who wonder "why" it did so fail to grasp the North's mindset in making such decisions -- one only considering the "why nots" of its actions.

In ordering the launch, Pyongyang came up with a number of "why not" justifications -- all of which bode well for its new leader, Kim Jong Un, to do so:

1. During its decades' long history of repeatedly initiating unprovoked acts of aggression as a "rogue" state, the North has never been dissuaded for fear of receiving a meaningful international response.

2. Those states most concerned about the North's aggression have often responded by rewarding its bad conduct with aid or financial assistance.

3. Regardless of how belligerent its conduct has been, Pyongyang has always been defended by its "Big Brother" -- China -- using its permanent UY.N. Security Council member status to prevent effective sanctions from being imposed against the North.

4. With South Korea in the middle of a presidential election at the time with both candidates declaring a return to Seoul's previously unsuccessful "sunshine" (appeasement) policy toward the North, neither will press for tougher action against Pyongyang.

5. With U.S. President Barack Obama having failed to act in the past against countries flexing their muscle by moving forward with illegal nuclear weapons or missile development programs -- countries like North Korea and Iran -- it is doubtful he will do so now.

6. Further deterring Obama is his indecision on how to stop Tehran's illegal program.

7. With data from the missile launch important to Iran, which pays for the North's technology to advance its own capabilities, the launch has financial rewards.

8. As Kim Jong Un promised his people 2012 would be a year of "strength and prosperity," a successful launch just five days before the first anniversary of the death of his father Kim Jong Il would provide that milestone.

Pyongyang has focused on developing a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery capability for 14 years. Yet, the U.S. response to repeated violations of the North's international commitments has been anything but forceful. Described as a policy of "strategic patience," it more accurately is one of "never-ending appeasement." Its failure is evident by Pyongyang having conducted four other long-range missile tests while claiming, like Iran, peaceful intent (i.e., for the North it is space research). However, strong evidence exists both states deceive the international community.

Operating North Korea as a rogue state has been a Kim family-owned business for three generations now, with Kim Jong Un, 29, its youngest leader ever. While Pyongyang's leadership suggests they want to normalize relations, they seek to do so by acting anything but normal.

North Korea is a country that has effectively cut itself off from most the world community except for states such as China (which provides a protective umbrella) and Iran (which buys its nuclear and missile technology).

It is a country spending more time seeking to build a state economy based on illegal activities -- drug trafficking, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, counterfeiting and laundering money -- to generate revenue as tight control of its people inhibits the nation's economic viability.

While sanctions have affected much of the illegal activity, little has been accomplished to curtail the North's nuclear arms and missile development ambitions.

The previous two members of the Kim Dynasty were brutally repressive, showing little concern for their people. When his father died last December, Kim Jong Un emerged as an unknown entity. It was hoped, with his promised "strength and prosperity," the emphasis would be more on the latter and less on the former. Such hopes were dashed earlier this year as he too proved brutal repression is part of the Kim DNA.

Following the mourning period for Kim Jong Il, several senior military leaders began "disappearing." Most were believed to have questioned the new leader's youthful inexperience and disappeared "quietly" -- except for army Vice Minister Kim Chol.

Arrested months earlier, the minister's execution was ordered by Kim Jong Un to be done so as to leave "no trace of him behind, down to his hair." Positioned on a spot targeted for a mortar round, Kim Chol was "obliterated" for drinking and carousing during the official mourning period. Such "misbehavior" claims have allegedly been used against other officials -- although their disappearance was by the standard execution means of firing squad.

The North's priorities are clear: Pyongyang spends $3 billion pursuing nuclear and missile development plus $40 million more on statues and paintings to glorify the Kims -- as one-third of its population starves.

The bad news is North Korea is driven by the Kim family's need to develop its nuclear arms and missile technologies to gain the respect of the world community. Although the good news is it is highly unlikely Pyongyang will ever use the technologies directly, the additional bad news is the cash-strapped nation destabilizes the world by selling them to any buyer with adequate funding.

Between "strength and prosperity," the real emphasis for North Korea's new leadership is "strength." Pyongyang is on a journey to develop nuclear arms and missile capabilities to sell to other rogue states. It is a journey a never ending story of U.S. appeasement will ensure eventually gets completed.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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