NEW YORK - You’ve got to hand it to the North Koreans, they certainly know how to throw a funeral.
I stayed up until two am watching the mammoth funeral of the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, live on TV from North Korea’s eerie, snowy capitol, Pyongyang. Giant floats and goose-stepping soldiers made this old Cold Warrior nostalgic for the 1970’s
What next for the Hermit Kingdom? Kim 3 – Kim Jong-un - has successfully made the transition. The 1.1-million armed forces, the Party, and security organs remain the power behind his leadership.
So far, a power struggle between these groups that could have led to the collapse of the North Korean state has not happened, avoiding South Korea’s greatest fear, “unexpected reunification” - a human tsunami of millions of starving northerners flooding south.
North Korea is branded a dangerous rogue state that threatens the entire world. This is certainly the common view in the United States.
However, the advent to power of “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un presents North Korea’s uneasy neighbors and the United States with an opportunity to defuse many of the peninsula’s dangerous tensions and even begin a process of opening the isolated Stalinist state to the outside world.
North Korea’s eccentric, occasionally violent behavior is driven by paranoia, fear of invasion, and hunger caused by crop failures. The north follows the credo of “Juche,” or total self-reliance and independence. Pyongyang routinely brands prosperous South Korea an American vassal state, and its leaders “traitors.”
North Korea is in a state of war with South Korea and the United States six decades after the Korean War. Having just revisited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating them, I felt the crackling tensions there that could erupt any time into full-scale war.
North Korea’s heavy guns dug into the DMZ have half of Seoul in their range. Kim Jong-il and father Kim Il -sung threatened to turn Seoul “into a sea of fire.”
The US has hinted it will consider using tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea in the event of war. Nearly 30,000 US troops garrison South Korea; 70,000 more could swiftly intervene there along with powerful US naval and air units.
North Korea keeps asking the US to sign a non-aggression pact in which Washington pledges not to attack the North. The North’s modest nuclear program is mainly to deter a US attack by threatening a counter-strike on South Korea, Japan and Okinawa.
Washington has long refused such a pact. Instead, it has ringed North Korea with military forces and imposing a punishing trade embargo that has played a major role in keeping the North in dire poverty. The US says North Korea’s regime is brutal, illegitimate despotism with which it will only deal with the greatest reluctance and disgust.
Yet the US supports many nasty dictatorships around the globe, such as Uzbekistan and Ethiopia. If the US really wants to end North Korea’s nuclear program, the solution is to sign a non-aggression pact and end US trade sanctions.
Both the US and South Korea should end their provocative military war games on North Korea’s borders. Such posturing led to last year’s military clashes.
North Korea will have to end its nuclear program, agree to cease threats against neighbors that are a form of financial blackmail, reduce the size of its huge armed forces, move them away from the DMZ, and divert resources to feeding its people.
The hard right in the US will try to block such steps to peace. America’s neocons worry that North Korea will supply nuclear and other weapons to Israel’s enemies and wants it crushed. South Korea’s Christian Evangelical hard right won’t end its hostility to Communism.
Even so, Kim Jong-un has a major opportunity to begin defusing 60-years of severe tensions and to also begin building up a modern nation with help from China. He will have to battle entrenched military and party lobbies, and also assure Beijing that North Korea will not fall into the US sphere of influence.
South Korea toiled its way out of dire poverty four decades ago, creating an economic miracle. Equally industrious, determined North Koreans could do the same today, if given half a chance.