Apr 232013

When it comes to North Korea, it’s a country that’s not at the very top of our national security list of worries. But the possibility of trouble with the Communist country isn’t infrequent, either. Not sure Dennis Rodman studied up on that before his recent trip there.

But I’ve been reading a lot lately about why we should be a little more focused on North Korea. An April 17 article in The Economist noted what North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has on his mind and in his arsenal:

“The technical deficiencies in its warheads and missiles could be overcome, given enough time (though American missile defenses, like those being sent to Guam, will also improve).  If its most recent bomb turns out to have used uranium rather than plutonium, the North could ramp up production far more quickly; the country has plenty of uranium-ore deposits and enrichment is easiest to conceal. The most immediate danger is that North Korean sells its known-how and material to other rogue states, such as Iran (which also uses uranium), or to terrorists unconcerned about accuracy. A further proliferation risk is that as North Korea’s technology improves, Japan and South Korea may be encouraged to start weapons programs of their own.”

As “The Church Lady” liked to say on Saturday Night Live, “Well, isn’t that special?”

The article ends with what it calls the “greatest threat.”  The Economist believes a conventional conflict born of a nuclear accident may harbor the greatest danger.  North Korea’s newest, yet untested rockets, may shoot up to six-thousand-plus miles, putting them in striking range of the U.S. West Coast.

The article also reported that North Korea has 1.1 million soldiers within sixty miles of the Demilitarized Zone, the strip of land along the 38th parallel that separates North and South Korea.  Established in 1953 as part of the peace talks between North and South, the DMZ has often been a source of tension and terror.

Where’s Bert the Turtle?

My immediate reaction to this, as a child of the 1950s, was to find a wooden school desk under which to “Duck and Cover” — the iconic Cold War video, featuring a turtle that hid in his own shell, produced in 1951 by the federal government, was still used in the early 1960s when I attended elementary school.

Now the Cold War is over. Today, terror presents itself in a million different ways, through IEDs and white powder in envelopes, through plots to blow up bridges and unimaginable natural disasters. Not to mention bombings at public gatherings.

So how does North Korea continue this 1950s-era stance to the world, almost like a school yard bully flipping the middle finger to a larger crowd of children?

A Slate profile of the young leader, asks “Who’s Afraid of Kim Jong-un?” If North Korea was any other country—minus the deranged dictator and a large cache of dangerous weapons—the rest of the world might ignore the constant saber-rattling. But that is not the case, is it?  Slate calls Kim Jong-un “an unknown quantity” and gave some historical context for their insecurity about the new leader:

“On February 29, 2012, in part as a test of the new leader’s intentions, President Obama agreed to provide the North Koreans with 240,000 tons of food aid if they suspended all missile and nuclear tests. On April 13, before the food began to be shipped, North Korea launched a missile test. Obama cancelled the aid and pushed a resolution through the U.N. Security Council, denouncing the launch as a “serious violation” of international law.”

What did the young Korean have to say about that?

“Kim responded with a public speech, heralding the missile launch as a display of North Korea’s ‘military superiority’ and vowing to resist imperial pressure.”

Say what?  That’s just not normal, but it is the same game that his father and grandfather enjoyed.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but isn’t historical context and understanding of dictators and their deeds shaped by what we know about them?  Who is advising the leader?  A New York Times profile reported that Kim Jong-un has a powerful uncle, Jang Song-taek, and that, “Mr. Jang serves as Mr. King’s mentor, but his ambitions beyond that are shrouded in mystery.”

There’s a lot of that mystery going around in North Korea.  We know remarkably little about Kim Jong-un.  And we know every less about the women in his life.

Is there a little Un in the Oven?

North Korea, in typical fashion, announced Kim Jong-ul’s bride to the world as part of an appearance at an amusement park.  The report from North Korean State TV said, “As a welcoming song resonated, dear respected Marshal Kim Jong-un, supreme commander of our party and our people, appeared at the inauguration ceremony together with his wife, comrade Ri Sol Ju.”

Could there be a fourth generation Kim on the way to get in line for North Korea’s dictatorship? While there has been no official announcement, various media articles speculate the thinner appearance of Kim Jong-un’s wife since the beginning of this year. As bizarre as this sounds, the same article reported that a spring appearance of the First Kouple of Korea included an “all-woman band singing the Johnny Mathis Christmas favorite ‘When a Child is Born.”

And one has to wonder if there is a shred of truth in the a story from The Onion which “quotes” Jong-un’s wife, “Since being ordered by my government to spend the rest of my life with this man, I’ve gotten to know him very well, and I can tell you that the Jong-un threatening nuclear war is not the Jong-un who plucked me out of a parade and demands I cut ties with my family.”

I will not go any further. From the ridiculous to the sublime, be exceedingly afraid.  We should be terrified by the truth, not the fiction.

Published April 23, 2013 on The Broad Side.

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