Just as the North Korean quandary began to show signs of abatement, Pyongyang shifted back into hard-line gear – on more fronts than one.
Until the mainstream media began to argue whether North Korea’s near mythical leader Kim Jong-Il was about to kick the bucket or not, Pyongyang had been showing a softer side of its concrete front. It promised to continue disabling a plutonium plant and, once again, to put an end to its nuclear programme. The US fulfilled its own part of the bargain by removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11. Everyone appeared to welcome this agreement as progress, except Japan, of course, who demands full disclosure of the fate of all its citizens believed to be abducted by North Korea.
Around November 12, the mood changed. Pyongyang suddenly announced it would close its border with the south and cut all phone links bar military lines come December.
The aggravations went further. Impartial nuclear inspectors were due to visit the Yongbyon nuclear complex and conduct an inquiry into the past activities at the plant, but such inspections have now been refused. Pyongyang claims it had never consented to them. Naturally, the US has a different view on the matter.
What’s more, North Korea has stalled a planned process to loosen travel restrictions for Chinese visitors. In August, Pyongyang and Beijing reportedly agreed to allow Chinese travellers to apply for visitor permits to North Korea in Beijing and Shanghai, but the North still hasn’t signed the accord. On the contrary, Japanese broadcasters claim restrictions were tightened during October, “amid concerns that travellers would walk away with rumours about Kim’s health.” China has boosted troop levels along its North Korean border, suggesting that even Beijing is losing confidence in North Korea’s stability.
Still, who is to say this isn’t just another round of Pyongyang ping-pong? Kim’s health may well be failing, and the legend surrounding his character is part and parcel of the Kim dynasty’s ideological rule. However, the well-orchestrated defiance put up by the North is testimony of a functional line of command, and its foreign policy as true to form as ever: the art of squeezing every penny out of the opposition.
Besides, both China and the United States have far too much at stake to let a sudden disintegration of North Korea to occur. Much of the US presence in North East Asia, especially its military partnership with Japan, rests on the North Korean threat. China, meanwhile, hosts two million ethnic Koreans and holds land that both Koreas claim to be historically Korean territory. A united Korean peninsula would likely pose a much greater security concern than the impoverished North does today.