If Barack Obama thought a change at the White House might ease a few of the outstanding problems left to him by George W. Bush, North Korea, for one, isn't playing along and that should surprise no one. Pyongyang is again demonstrating that it's a bipartisan pain in the neck. Whether you're a hawk professing your "loathing" for Kim Jong Il, the dictator who presumably still runs Pyongyang, or a dove who wants to extend hands across the water, North Korea has already made clear that nothing has changed as far as it's concerned. In the past week, South Korean military sources have said that Pyongyang has moved a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead into test position; should a launch follow and South Korean sources say they now expect one in the next month or two it would be the most provocative act the North has taken since it tested a nuclear weapon in fall 2006. Furthermore, Pyongyang announced late last week that it will no longer recognize any political or military agreements struck with Seoul, including a border demarcation in the so-called West Sea, where there have been two bloody clashes between the North and South in the past decade.
Analysts in Seoul believe North Korea is trying to send messages to three audiences at the same time. The first is its own people, who need to be reassured at a time when rumors continue to circulate about the health of their Dear Leader, who foreign intelligence agencies believe had a stroke last summer. Like his father before him, Kim Jong Il rules on the strength of "symbolic capability," says Song Dae-sung, president of the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. "North Korea idolizes a single leader. Kim Jong Il's bad health and leaflets being sent by anti-North Korea NGOs in the South to the North Korean people are undermining the solidity of the ruling system." Song says heightened tension between the two Koreas helps to strengthen "the internal solidarity of [Kim Jong Il's] regime." (See the doctored pictures of Kim Jong Il after his reported illness.)
The second audience is the government in Seoul. Since President Lee Myung Bak took office a year ago, South Korea has been far less willing than the preceding administration to send economic aid to the North without movement on the nuclear issue. But the North's anger at this has gotten it nowhere thus far. In fact, Lee just appointed as his Unification Minister a notably hawkish scholar who was one of the architects of the policy that suspended rice and fertilizer aid to the North in lieu of progress on the nuclear issue. So North Korea watchers in Seoul now believe that Pyongyang is upping the ante to create widespread concern in the South about the deterioration of North-South relations.
The third intended recipient of the North's recent bellicosity, analysts believe, is the most important: the new Obama Administration in Washington. Pyongyang has watched President Obama come in and quickly appoint special envoys to three critical trouble spots: the Middle East, Iran and Pakistan-Afghanistan-India. They further heard new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton give measured testimony about the North during her confirmation hearings. She reiterated that "sincere dialogue" with the North can come only after the nuclear issue has once and for all been put to bed that is to say, when the North verifiably demonstrates that it longer has a weapons-making program. Pyongyang, says the Sejong Institute's Song, "did not like Hillary's nuance at the confirmation hearing, that denuclearization comes before a sincere dialogue. North Korea does not want itself to be on a back burner when it comes to the new Administration's foreign policy. It wants to bypass Seoul and strike a direct deal with the U.S. North Korea is sending a message to Obama that it wants an expedited dialogue." (See pictures of orchestral diplomacy in Pyongyang.)
The Obama Administration has given no indication that it shares the same desire. Indeed, if anything, Secretary Clinton seemed to downplay the nuclear threat from the North in her hearings. At one point, when asked about the North's alleged uranium-enrichment program, she said the U.S. had "never quite verified" its existence. That was certainly not the position of several key people in the Bush Administration including the former President himself. The question now is, Will Pyongyang, feeling a bit ignored, raise enough of a ruckus to force itself back onto Washington's center stage? The answer may be one that President Obama and co., consumed from Day One with crises at home and abroad, don't need.
With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul