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North Korea news simmering on front and back burners

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Returning from their Golden Week holiday break, the weekly magazines have directed much of their attention to the Korean Peninsula, with a fusillade of commentary by politicians, former diplomats, journalists, academics and the ubiquitous commentators referred to as gunji hyoron-ka — usually translated as military analyst, although some cynics have dubbed them gunji otaku (military geeks).

In response to America’s dispatching of the Carl Vinson carrier group to the Sea of Japan, the North Koreans on April 25 conducted a live firing exercise of over 300 artillery pieces. The magazine Aera (May 15) sees the “competing threats” — the term it uses for “show of force” — between North Korea and the United States as an ominous development and possible prelude to war.

“When a potential adversary is not intimidated,” the writer comments, “we are tied to a situation where neither side can lower their raised fists. There have been many examples when such threatening acts developed into a shooting war.”

One such example was the conflict between China and Vietnam in 1979. To punish Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot for killing Vietnamese nationals, Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded Cambodia with 140,000 troops. China, which supported the Pol Pot regime, hoped that by moving troops to Vietnam’s border it would force a withdrawal. But Vietnam didn’t budge and to save face China felt compelled to act. Its military forces advanced 30 kilometers into Vietnam, but the Vietnamese — battle tested by three decades of wars against the French and Americans — put up stiff resistance and China soon withdrew.

Nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union was narrowly averted in 1962 over the latter’s missiles in Cuba. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were able to harness back-channel negotiations and arrive at a compromise. But can U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rise to the same level? This will be the crucial question in terms of Japan’s security, Aera concludes.

Writing in the Sunday Mainichi (May 21), author-journalist Yoichiro Aonuma explored the potential threat of missiles armed with nerve gas against American bases in Japan. While amateurish, the open use of a nerve toxin to assassinate Kim’s half brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February served as an ominous reminder that North Korea maintains extensive stocks of chemical weapons. Aonuma also raises the possibility that the sarin nerve toxin allegedly used on civilians by the forces of President Bashar Assad in Syria may have been supplied by Pyongyang.

Another worrisome prospect would be terrorist attacks against Japan, by special forces units disembarking from submarines and/or “moles” already present in Japan, perhaps having entered the country on forged passports. As a result of a North-South agreement, the North’s transmission of late-night coded broadcasts to overseas operatives was halted in 2000, but in an alarming development the broadcasts were reinitiated from June 24 of last year.

“If war happens, I think it will be the U.S. that pulls the trigger,” political commentator and author Masaru Sato tells Shukan Kinyobi magazine (April 28-May 5). “There’s a certain logic to the North Koreans’ thinking in that the U.S. wants to overthrow their political regime. I don’t want a war, but if it happens, my only wish toward the U.S. is that, at the very least, they don’t initiate it.”

To this end, Americans would be well advised to try to better understand the North Koreans from a cultural standpoint.

In an interview in Weekly Playboy (May 22) Ko Yong Gi, operator of the news site “Daily NK Japan” (dailynk.jp), remarked that, “It’s impossible for North Korea to achieve a great victory, and it is not thinking in those terms. Rather, it’s bent on winning without fighting (compare Sunzi’s fifth-century BC work, “The Art of War”: “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill). To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

“Firstly, North Korea doesn’t really want to go to war,” Ko continues. “It will continue using nuclear weapons to intimidate, but its main objective is to keep Kim Jong Un in power. From a cultural perspective, the best thing for their image is maintaining the Kim regime. That will be a ‘great victory,’ as they see it.”

Meanwhile, the analysts are sifting through mountains of data for subtle indications that the North will step back from the brink. Yukan Fuji (May 7) reported on the apparent reaction of Kim to rumors of a plot that the American CIA and South Koreans plans to assassinate him.

In a TV broadcast of April 11, Kim was shown wearing the obligatory badge bearing the image of his venerated grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on his tunic. But in a North Korean wire service photo taken on May 5, the badge was missing. Was that a wardrobe malfunction, or if not, then what does it signify?

An article in a South Korean publication quoted an “unnamed high-ranking North Korean defector,” who said that the missing badge may indicate Kim’s desire to emerge from the shadows of his father and grandfather and assert his independence.

Professor Kazuhiro Araki of Takushoku University agrees. “If Kim continues to make public appearances minus the badge, it might suggest he’s trying to project himself as his own man,” Araki said. “But if he just forgot to pin it on, it might not signify anything of importance.”

When the rank-and-file are forced to wear badges, but the top man can get away without one, Yukan Fuji, remarks ironically, that’s a sure sign of dictatorship.