“A real and clear danger,” is how Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on April 3 described North Korea. Secretary of State John Kerry and South Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held a joint press conference in Washington to emphasize a military and security partnership.
They are reacting to North Korea declaring a “state of war” with South Korea and threatening nuclear attack. Pyongyang’s seemingly demented declarations from the top have been echoed in some ominous moves. That government abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War, and cut the military hot line communications link with the south.
Satellite images reveal that construction activity apparently has commenced at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The facility was partially disabled in 2007 as the result of a diplomatic agreement.
Pyongyang is preventing South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial center, located six miles north of the DMZ separating the two nations. The center is an important surviving source of hard currency vital to the feeble economy of North Korea.
These developments may presage war, a terrible possibility, yet there is still no concrete evidence that North Korea is mobilizing to invade South Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear military capabilities remain rudimentary. Missile tests have included some limited success, but also dramatic failure.
More likely, there is a behind-the-scenes struggle for power. Last July, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, a powerful figure, was relieved of command, allegedly due to illness. This explanation is generally discounted. He had been an ally of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young and inexperienced leader.
Last May, Kim publicly criticized those in the military “developing a taste for money” amid reports of corruption. As part of the shake-up that followed, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army, the latest celebratory title sycophants have attached to his name. Whether he is solidifying power, or being weakened and sidelined, is not at all clear.