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Smoke without fire?

With North Korea test-launching a series of ‘possibly’ nuclear-capable missiles, what’s interesting to note is not that it is testing the patience of its edgy neighbours all over again, but the predictability of it all, writes Preeti Singh.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2009 00:14 IST
Preeti Singh

While the Americans were busy firefighting in two of the original members of that ol’ ‘axis of evil’ — George W. Bush’s self-fulfilling prophecy — the third unleashed some fireworks of its own. With North Korea test-launching a series of ‘possibly’ nuclear-capable missiles, what’s interesting to note is not that it is testing the patience of its edgy neighbours all over again, but the predictability of it all.

North Korea’s Dear Leader, the flamboyantly reclusive Kim Jong Il, has been pulling similar attention-grabbing tricks over the years. In January 2003, when the US was engaged in a war in Afghanistan and gearing up for another in Iraq, Pyongyang accused the US of breaking its disarmament-for-aid bargain and announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech having pushed just the right buttons. Three years later, in 2006, it conducted a nuclear test, after playing footsie with the US and undermining a multilateral search for a compromise. And now, with the Americans finally beginning a long-awaited pullout from Iraq, with a new president at the helm, the North Koreans are back to being petulant, probably to say: ‘You may be busy with the other rogues, but don’t ignore us.’ The nuclear and missile tests, followed by UN Security Council censure, are a familiar story — they’ve played this game before.

The usual speculation has followed Pyongyang’s latest belligerence. Clues are rare to come by from what’s perhaps the world’s most closeted country, so the guessing game continues. Indications that Kim Jong Il has chosen his youngest son, the 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, as his successor suggest that the tests could be some sort of rites of passage for the young Un. ‘What daddy can do, I can do better’ might be the implicit message to dispel any wayward ideas the world might have.

The tested missiles — seemingly more advanced — have provided fresh ammunition to uneasy neighbours, especially Japan, which has long been clamouring for more stringent action against North Korea than mere sanctions and censure. Sanctions themselves haven’t have worked, since it is difficult to hold a country — whose leaders don’t care about what happens to their people — hostage. The rest of the world is more likely to blink before they do. Tempering any extreme reactions are both China and South Korea. The latter because its troops stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the North Koreans across what can perhaps be called the last Cold War frontier; the former because it thinks that North Korea’s tantrums are way more preferable than its collapse and waves of refugees. The US is no longer led by trigger happy Bush and it remains to be seen what balance Obama will strike.

The ‘rogue’ state’s been dancing its version of the nuclear polka for a long time: one step forward, two steps back. And like a jealous girlfriend at the country fair, the only attention it seems to be seeking is that of the Americans. Having clung to its ‘sovereign right’ to a ‘peaceful’ missile programme, Pyongyang usually relents when its nuclear blackmail delivers desired results. Wringing deals by thundering about and then promising disarmament in return for aid is a now-familiar tactic that has served it well in the past. Theatrics aside, the real worry is not any imminent threat of a military response or a Pyongyang nuke show, but the fact that moves from either side might push long-suffering North Koreans deeper into misery. It has already rejected fertiliser aid shipments from South Korea and the UN World Food Programme has warned of a severe crisis, as a large chunk of pledged food aid has yet to be been delivered.

In trying to bottle a nuclear genie and prolific proliferator, the UN Security Council had passed another resolution tightening sanctions and allowing countries to request boarding and inspection of North Korean ships suspected of ferrying missile technology and weapons, to choke its air suppl. The move has already forced a suspect ship to turn back.

Given concerns about Kim Jong Il’s declining health and murmurs of a change of guard in the hermetic nation, there seems to be another story playing out behind the official press releases and selective mugshots of the Dear Leader. Perhaps the pyrotechnics are nothing but a cover for an internal power struggle or a smooth takeover by young Jong Un. It’s safe to say that we’ll only know when we know.