SoKor plays hardball
Vows strong response against Nokor attacks
South Korean President Park Geuhn-Hye ordered her top military leaders to set aside political considerations and respond strongly should North Korea attack. This developed as the United States sent F-22 stealth fighter jets to reinforce its commitment to defending South Korea.
The US and South Korea’s moves were made in response to North Korea’s “near-daily” threats that it would launch nuclear strikes on South Korea and the United States.
Pyongyang has reacted with anger over routine U.S.-South Korean military drills and a new round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that followed its Feb. 12 underground nuclear test, the country’s third.
On Saturday, North Korea said it was entering a “state of war” with South Korea in response to what it said were “hostile” military drills being staged in the South.
But on Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gathered the Supreme People’s Assembly for its annual spring parliamentary session that followed a ruling party declaration that nuclear bomb building and a stronger economy were the nation’s top priorities.
John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said the sudden shift may signal a balanced effort to turn around a moribund economy with nuclear development.
“There was a danger that this was getting to the point ... of a permanent war footing,” Delury said.
“In the midst of this tension and militant rhetoric and posturing, Kim Jong Un is saying, Look, we’re still focused on the economy, but we’re doing it with our nuclear deterrent intact.”
Delury added that South Korea now faces a major decision. If Park and her advisers react as her hard-line predecessor did, “then they’re stuck in the same place, where North Korea limps along, but with regime stability.”
If so, then “the risk of a conflict is like a dark cloud over the next five years of the Park Geun-hye administration. It’s not such an appealing path for her.”
But analysts see a full-scale North Korean attack as unlikely and say the threats are more likely efforts to provoke softer policies toward Pyongyang from a new government in Seoul, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the young North Korean leader’s military credentials at home.
During the assembly, Kim and top party officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons the “the nation’s life” and an important component of its defense, an asset that wouldn’t be traded even for “billions of dollars.” Pyongyang cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as a main reason behind its drive to build missiles and atomic weapons. The U.S. has stationed tens of thousands of troops in South Korea since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953.
But while analysts call North Korea’s threats largely brinkmanship, there is some fear that a localized skirmish might escalate. Seoul has vowed to respond harshly should North Korea provoke its military. Naval skirmishes in disputed Yellow Sea waters off the Korean coast have led to bloody battles several times over the years. Attacks blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
Under late leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea had typically held a parliamentary meeting once a year. But Kim Jong Un held an unusual second session last September in a sign that he is trying to run the country differently from his father, who died in late 2011.
Parliament sessions, which usually are held to approve personnel changes and budget and fiscal plans, are scrutinized by the outside world for signs of key changes in policy and leadership.
At a session last April, Kim was made first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, the body’s top post.
On Sunday, Kim presided over a separate plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, a top decision-making body tasked with organizing and guiding the party’s major projects. The meeting set a “new strategic line” calling for building both a stronger economy and nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s “nuclear armed forces represent the nation’s life, which can never be abandoned as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth,” according to a statement issued by state media after the meeting.
Sunday marked the first time for Kim to preside over the committee meeting. The last plenary session was held in 2010, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, and before that in 1993.
The plenary statement also called for strengthening the economy, which Kim has put an emphasis on in his public statements since taking power. The U.N. says two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people face regular food shortages.
The decision means North Korea believes it can rebuild the economy while not neglecting its military because it now has nuclear and long-range missile capabilities, said analyst Cheong Seong-jang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. “It’s like chasing two hares at once,” he said.
The North also named former Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju as a member of the party central committee’s powerful Political Bureau, a sign that he could again play a key role in the North’s economic policymaking process. Pak reportedly was sacked as premier in 2007 after proposing a wage system seen as too similar to U.S.-style capitalism.
North Korea’s economy is about one-fortieth the size of South Korea’s and the country relies on China for diplomatic and economic support. Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition affect about two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people, according to a UN assessment last June.
Park had promised economic support if Kim abandons the nuclear weapons program, and last week approved 680 million won ($611,000) of tuberculosis medicine to be sent to the North, in the first shipment of humanitarian aid since she took office in February.
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