(by Patrick Goodenough, CNSNews.com) – Amid continuing
speculation about the state of Kim Jong-il’s health, North Korea’s
government has stepped up threats against its neighbor. It is
especially sensitive about the dissemination of propaganda leaflets
inside its territory.
Defectors from North Korea and other Seoul-based opponents of the Kim regime earlier this month launched balloons carrying 10,000 leaflets across the world’s most heavily armed border. Another 40,000 were released on Monday.
The messages, aimed at ordinary North Koreans, call for an end to Kim’s rule.
Pyongyang last week accused Seoul of “inciting the rightist conservatives to strengthen and expand psychological warfare,” warning this could lead to “a new war, a nuclear war.”
During a brief inter-Korean military dialogue in the Demilitarized Zone on Monday, officials from the North charged that the South’s government was not stopping the anti-Kim groups.
Pyongyang followed up Tuesday with a threat, released through its KCNA news agency: “Should the South Korean puppet authorities continue scattering leaflets and conducting a smear campaign with sheer fabrications, our army will take a resolute practical action as we have already warned.”
Seoul’s national intelligence chief Kim Sung-ho told lawmakers Tuesday that the leaflets could pose a threat to the regime by highlighting “some stark realities.”
During talks in earlier years both governments agreed to stop slandering each other. Seoul says while it cannot stop private citizens’ free expression it has stopped official propaganda activities. Verbal attacks by the North remain commonplace, however, and were stepped up after conservative President Lee Myung-bak, whom it labels a “traitor,” took office this year.
Although South Korean activists have sent leaflets across the border for years, the North seems particularly riled by the current campaign.
It comes at a time when speculation about Kim’s health is making daily headlines, along with concerns that his demise could spark internal chaos and uncertainty about the fate of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
The traditionally reclusive 66-year-old leader has not been seen since mid-August amid rumors of a stroke and brain surgery. Especially glaring was his failure to attend a Sept. 9 military parade marking the state’s 60th anniversary.
South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper Wednesday said intelligence cited by government officials indicated the Kim had suffered a severe setback and was in the hospital.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso told lawmakers in Tokyo it was likely Kim remained hospitalized but was not believed to be totally incapable of making decisions.
French and Japanese media have reported that Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, traveled to Paris to arrange for a top French neurosurgeon to visit Pyongyang.
“Kim Jong-il’s health is the biggest state secret they’ve got, bigger than their nuclear capabilities. So much of what you see being commented on in the press is pure speculation,” former Bush administration top arms control official John Bolton said in an interview with Politico published Tuesday.
North Korea sought to defuse rumors earlier this month by announcing that Kim had attended a soccer game and releasing 13 photographs showing him visiting a female army unit. Plant experts in the South noted, however, that vegetation visible in the photos suggested they were taken in summer, rather than in early October as claimed.
Meanwhile KCNA continues to publish daily dispatches with such headlines as “Gift to Kim Jong-il from Syrian Organization” and “Gift to Kim Jong-il from Myanmar Minister of Sports” – although the reports say the gifts in each case were delivered to government officials, not to Kim himself.
Kim inherited the leadership after his father, Kim Il-sung died in 1994. Although he has three sons, aged 37, 27 and 25, and a brother-in-law who holds a senior post in the ruling Workers’ Party, he has never publicly anointed a successor.
Kim’s official position is not president – that title was “retired” with the death of his father – but chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC). He is also general-secretary of the Workers’ Party.
South Korean political analyst Lee Dong-bok said Wednesday the power structure is a combination of a Stalinist regime and “a monarchy of sorts.”
Although one of Kim’s three sons was therefore a likely heir, it was unclear whether any of them has been groomed to take over, Lee said by phone from Seoul.
He noted that Kim Jong-il himself had prepared for more than 30 years to succeed Kim Sung-il.
Lee, who has served as special assistant to the South Korean prime minister and intelligence service chief, played down the importance of the NDC in the transition, saying such bodies were “merely facades.” The position of general-secretary of the ruling party was of greater importance, he argued.
Lee did not expect chaos to accompany a transition.
“When Kim Jong-il passes away there is a very strong possibility that the party will be able to take good care of it for the moment. The Workers’ Party is very securely holding the power. The question is, what happens after that?”
Contingency plans for future emergencies
The safety of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in the event of regime collapse is an issue that has long concerned policy makers.
Former South Korean foreign minister Yoon Young-kwan in a recent article wondered whether leaders after Kim would manage the weapons responsibly, “without transferring a few of them abroad.”
In 1999, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea confirmed the existence of a contingency plan for the two allies to deal with sudden changes in the North. Reports since then indicate that the plan, known as “contingency plan 5029,” covers eventualities including loose nuclear weapons and a mass exodus of refugees.
The former liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, who favored more conciliatory policies towards the North, asked the U.S. military in 2005 to suspend discussions on the plan, but it is now reportedly back on the table.
Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo daily Wednesday quoted a government official as saying Defense Secretary Robert Gates during bilateral security talks in Washington this month raised the issue of turning the contingency plan into a concrete operational plan.
Analyst Lee Dong-bok said concerns about the safety of the nuclear weapons made such plans essential.
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1. Name the capitals and leaders of North and South Korea.
2. How did the North Korean government react to the launch of balloons from South Korea carrying leaflets calling for an end to Kim Jong Il’s rule?
3. What did South Korea’s government say/do in response to North Korea’s threats?
4. South Korean activists have sent leaflets across the border for years. Why is the North Korean government especially angered by this now?
5. In an attempt to prove that Kim Jong Il is healthy, North Korea released photos of his recent visit to an army unit. Why are the pictures believed to be old?
6. The safety of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in the event of regime collapse is an issue that has long concerned policy makers. What preparations have the U.S. and South Korean governments made to react to this possible event?
7. OPTIONAL: To gain a better understanding of what is happening in North Korea, read the “Background” and “Resources” below.
ON NORTH KOREA: (from the CIA World FactBook)
Read background on North Korea at persecution.com.
Go to worldatlas.com for a map of North Korea.
Read a commentary from the Wall Street Journal “Succeeding Kim Jong Il”
For a clear explanation of the history of North Korea’s nuclear program, read John Podhoretz’s commentary at NYPost.com.
Read the interview with John Bolton at politico.com.