Arthur Cyr - North Korea's leaders substitute tantrums for policy

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Summer brings hot weather, especially politically on the Korea peninsula. North Korea has announced that two detained American tourists, Jeffrey Edward Fowle and Matthew Todd Miller, will be put on trial for provocative acts. Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae has been imprisoned since November 2012.

Pyongyang has reacted with outrage to the visit to South Korea of new China President Xi Jinping, who has not yet visited the North. The two Koreas have exchanged artillery fire. Pyongyang has fired missiles into the sea and has announced another nuclear test.

Last year, North Korea announced a 'state of war' with South Korea and threatened nuclear attack. Pyongyang abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War, and cut the military 'hot line' communications link with the south.

Pyongyang temporarily prevented 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 source of hard currency for the desperately poor economy of North Korea.

These developments in total may presage war, a truly terrible possibility, yet there is still no concrete evidence that North Korea has been mobilizing to invade South Korea.

Moreover, Pyongyang's nuclear military capabilities remain extremely rudimentary. Missile tests have included some limited success, but also dramatic failure.

More likely, there is a behind-the-scenes struggle for power. In July 2012, 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 extremely young and inexperienced leader.

Kim publicly criticized those in the military 'developing a taste for money' amid reports of corruption. As part of the shakeup which followed, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People's Army, adding to the latest celebratory titles sycophants have attached to his name. Whether he is solidifying power, or being weakened and sidelined, is not at all clear. His supportive uncle Jang Song-thaek was abruptly arrested and executed last December.

North Korea generally has been acting erratically. In March 2010, a North Korea torpedo sank the South Korean ship Cheonan. In the same vicinity in November of that year, North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island.

In late February 2012, North Korea agreed yet again to cease their on-again, off-again nuclear program. In joint announcements coordinated with the U.S. Department of State, the regime agreed to halt enrichment of uranium and construction of weapons, and permit international inspection of nuclear facilities.

Yet two months later, Pyongyang tested a missile. The launch ended in embarrassing failure. This constant course shifting strongly implies infighting as well as weakness at the top.

Pres. Barack Obama's instinct for moderate language and international cooperation is welcome, but so is firm language and actions response to Pyongyang's irresponsibility. The growing isolation of the surviving communist state provides an opportunity for Washington to strengthen ties with Beijing and Moscow as well as Seoul.

Regarding Korea, President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided an important lesson in the realities of war. Stalled Korean War armistice talks were quickly, successfully concluded following extraordinary obliteration bombing of North Korea. Ike knew how to get the most terrible yet essential jobs done, ruthlessly.

We must complement strong public statements with our own preparations for military strikes, if such prove necessary. We must continue diplomacy but be ready for war. Fortunately, South Korea is a formidable ally.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc. and author of After the Cold War.)

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