N Korea's conflicting actions question Kim's statecraft

N Korea's conflicting actions question Kim's statecraft
PHOTO: AFP

From a series of provocations to an abrupt offer of cross-border dialogue, North Korea's contradictory actions have raised questions about whether its leader Kim Jong-un's dealings with the South are based on thought-out strategy or ham-fisted decision-making.

Last Thursday, the regime sharply raised inter-Korean tensions by issuing a 48-hour ultimatum for the South to halt propaganda broadcasts and warning of "military action," only to offer high-level inter-Korean talks the next day.

Even during the rare bilateral talks on Sunday, the North continued to heighten tensions by sending some 50 submarines away from their base and doubling its forward-deployed artillery forces that were ready for strike missions.

Some analysts said that the recent series of moves by Pyongyang underscored Kim's unstable, military-oriented management of cross-border ties. But others claimed that the moves might be based on strategically calibrated scenarios to achieve concessions from Seoul and Washington.

"Inexperienced and ignorant people tend to be courageous," said Chun In-young, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, referring to the young North Korean leader who took power in 2011 after only several years of grooming.

"He had a very short period of time to accumulate experience in state management before taking the helm of his country. Thus, there are chances that he could make miscalculations or dangerous decisions."

Chun added that Kim's apparent efforts to highlight his military leadership though state media have also raised concerns that he might not be able to exercise prudence, restraint and caution in his management of external relations.

The Aug. 4 land mine provocation shocked South Korea, as the incident coincided with Seoul's efforts to forge a reconciliatory mood on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the two Koreas' liberation from Japan's colonial rule.

The land mine inflicted severe injuries on two South Korean soldiers. Pyongyang has denied responsibility -- a denial that has further fanned anti-Pyongyang sentiment in South Korea and led Seoul to harden its stance against the North.

Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said that Pyongyang was resorting to its signature brinkmanship diplomacy based on meticulous consideration of Seoul's reactions.

"I think the North has once again resorted to brinkmanship tactics -- creating a crisis through limited attacks and trying to bring about a change in the current (deadlock) in its favour," he said.

"The offer of dialogue appears to have come as the military gaps between the two Koreas remain big, particularly when the South Korea-US combined military power poses a burden on it. The provocations might have been conducted based on careful calculations and meticulous planning."

Kim Heung-kyu, international relations professor at Ajou University, said that North Korea's recent provocations, including the latest rocket attack targeting Seoul's propaganda speakers, might have been aimed to achieve multiple purposes.

"The North might have intended to ease the South's hard-line stance and restrain its anti-Pyongyang propaganda activities by triggering (ideological) division inside the South," he said in his social media posting.

"A provocation could cause a crisis that could make (South Korean) President Park Geun-hye reconsider her trip to China (in September), thereby impeding the strengthening of the South Korea-China relations."

He also said that after its failures to gain economic assistance from Japan, Russia and the US, Pyongyang appeared to have concluded that diplomacy would not help address its economic and other issues.

Meanwhile, the South has been struggling to break what it calls a "vicious circle of North Korean provocations" amid increasingly provocative North Korean rhetoric and actions, and escalating security concerns among South Koreans.

So far, Seoul has striven to maintain a two-track approach, employing both dialogue and a stern response to North Korean provocations. But Pyongyang's adherence to its nuclear programme and continued border provocations have triggered Seoul's harsh reaction, which further raised the risks of another North Korean provocation.

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