North Korea, the world’s last remaining truly totalitarian dictatorship, held a Communist Party Congress May 6 to 9. Tight total control of the enormous, closely choreographed show was self-evident. The last such party congress was held in 1980, an occasion for regime founder Kim Il-sung to indicate succession of power to his son Kim Jong-il.
Current dictator Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il, assumed power following the death of his father in 2011. He wore a business suit for the latest party extravaganza, a departure from the usual uniform. Kim publicly acknowledged economic challenges, a remarkable understatement which nonetheless is long overdue.
The Communist Party Congress has taken place in a context of continuous friction, punctuated by occasional violence and aggressive moves, regarding South Korea. In 2013, 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.
During this same period Pyongyang temporarily prevented South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial center, located six miles north of the demilitarized zone separating the two nations. Last February, South Korea shut down the center to protest Pyongyang provocations. The center has been an important source of hard currency for the North.
These developments could be the prelude to war, yet there is no concrete evidence that North Korea is mobilizing to invade South Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear military capabilities are growing but remain rudimentary. Missile tests have included some limited success, but also dramatic failure.
Kim has publicly criticized those in the military for “developing a taste for money” amid reports of corruption. As part of a major military shakeup, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army, adding to a series of celebratory titles. He has been ruthless in executing those suspected of disloyalty, including close family members.
North Korea now has been acting erratically for years. In March 2010, a North Korean 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 once more 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 was an embarrassing flop. This unpredictable course shifting implies infighting among factions in the regime, rather than total control by Kim and his immediate coterie.
President Barack Obama’s instinct for moderate language and international cooperation is in evidence and welcome regarding North Korea, but so is firm language and actions responding to Pyongyang’s irresponsibility and provocations.
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.
In early March, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2270, which significantly strengthens sanctions on North Korea. These include bans on importing coal and minerals, and restrictions on cargo ships and financial transactions.
China and Russia now support sanctions, though with specific exceptions. There is also an active black market with Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, the noose is tightening.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org