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SEOUL, South Korea — After the debacle of last Friday’s failed missile launch, North Korea proved it can still put on a decent parade… and keep the world guessing about its next move.
If the Unha-3′s short-lived flight, after which it exploded and landed in pieces in the Yellow Sea, was a humiliating preamble to celebrations to mark the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the festivities in Pyongyang two days later were a sign that normal business had resumed.
Jong Un’s portly figure and haircut have invited inevitable comparisons with his grandfather. But his first public speech since becoming leader four months ago could have been written for his father, Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack last December.
“Yesterday, we were a weak and small country trampled upon by big powers,” he told tens of thousands of soldiers and citizens who had gathered in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.
“Today, our geopolitical location remains the same, but we are transformed into a proud political and military power and an independent people that no one can dare provoke,” he said.
The parade that followed was an opportunity for the regime to display an impressive inventory of military hardware. It included what appeared to be a new long-range missile, although it did not appear to be big enough to reach the U.S. mainland 9,000 miles away, according to analysts cited by the Yonhap news agency. Some suggested it could even have been a mock-up, designed to raise anxiety levels among its neighbors.
There were small, but symbolic departures from the past, not least of which was Kim’s relaxed demeanor once he had completed his monotone address.
But the message resonating around the square was as unambiguous as it was predictable: The military-first policy pioneered by his father, at huge cost to the well-being of the country’s 23 million people, would continue.
“Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolized by imperialists, and the era of enemies using atomic bombs to threaten and blackmail us is forever over,” he said.
The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, are struggling to come up with an appropriate response. Japanese officials are under fire for failing to quickly announce the rocket’s launch — a delay the Nikkei newspaper called a “40-minute vacuum.” All the defense minister, Naoki Tanaka, could tell reporters later was that “some kind of flying object” had been launched from North Korea, and that Japan’s territory had not been threatened.
Japan, like the U.S., is now talking in vague terms about additional sanctions against the regime, although it is difficult to identify any meaningful measure that hasn’t been tried already. Tokyo imposed bilateral sanctions, including a ban on all imports and exports, after the North tested a long-range missile in July 2006. New measures could include tighter restrictions on remittences to the North from ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
The U.S., where President Obama faces mounting criticism of his policy of engagement with Pyongyang, has pushed for a united response to the launch from the UN Security Council. That may include a fresh attempt to deprive the regime’s nuclear and missile programs of cash by expanding the UN blacklist of North Korean accompanies and individuals. But no new sanctions have been proposed amid opposition from China and Russia.
“We will continue to keep the pressure on them and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path,” Obama said in an interview with a U.S. television network.
The South Korean president, Lee Myung Bak, implored the North to step back from the brink. “The leadership of North Korea might think they could help further consolidate their regime by threatening the world with nuclear weapons and missiles. However, such acts will only put North Korea in greater danger,” Lee said in a regular radio address on Monday.
He noted that last week’s rocket launch cost $850 million — enough money, he added, to solve food shortages in North Korea for six years. “The way for the North to survive is to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapons and to cooperate with the international community through reform and open-door policies.”
His North Korean counterpart gave little indication of that in his address on Sunday. Instead, there is growing acceptance that Kim will attempt to re-establish his credibility with a third nuclear test or a provocative action directed at the South.
As the Korea Herald said in an editorial on Monday, a nuclear test would not only raise anxiety levels in Washington. It would, the paper said, “pose a serious threat to South Korea as well. “Just as Washington promises to marshal international sanctions against a nuclear test, so does Seoul need to renew its commitment to retaliating against Pyongyang for any military provocation.”
Others called for another attempt at luring North Korea to the negotiating table. Tong Kim, a visiting research professor at Korea University in Seoul, believes a revival of the Feb. 29 deal granting North Korea access to U.S. food aid in return for abandoning its uranium enrichment and missile development, could dissuade Pyongyang from another bout of saber-rattling.
“Another nuclear test by the North would certainly create more political and security problems in this year of presidential elections in the United States and South Korea,” he wrote in the Korea Times. “It would also delay the resumption of the six-party talks, which are still the best possible forum for denuclearizing North Korea.”
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