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Making sense of North Korea’s March madness

by John J. Metzler

When the U.N. Security Council passed a package of uncharacteristically tough sanctions on North Korea over the communist regime’s nuclear weapons tests and missile proliferation, the Pyongyang leadership went rhetorically ballistic.

Pyongyang’s pro forma rants and raves toward South Korea and the United States were notched up to include scrapping the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War’s hostilities. For good measure, North Korea threatened to nuke the U.S. with its newfound but happily not yet deliverable nuclear bombs.

Significantly the latest Security Council resolution was unanimously passed and thus included support from China, the longtime but increasingly wary political mentor of the quaintly titled “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK).

The resolution stated the obvious: “reaffirming that proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery, constitute a threat to international peace and security.” The lengthy ten page document equally “reaffirms its decision that the DPRK shall abandon all other existing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” Specifically the resolution calls for tougher financial sanctions to the point of barring suitcases of bulk cash for various weapons deals.

On a lighter note part of the resolution’s Annex includes barring the import of jewelry, yachts and racing cars. This is seen as a method to stifle favors for the small clique around the dictator Kim Jong Un.

Even if the sanctions are selectively enforced by regional states such as China, the fact remains that the latest Security Council resolution underscores the unmistakable trend that the world community, even neighboring China and Russia, are weary and especially wary of North Korea upsetting East Asia’s equilibrium. Japan is genuinely frightened, while prosperous South Korea has kept a stoic calm.

South Korea’s new president, Park Geun Hye, has stated clearly, “We must deal strongly with a North Korean provocation.”

Interestingly before the latest sanctions squeeze, in a strange bid of sports diplomacy, former American basketball star Dennis Rodman visited Pyongyang to meet with Kim, an improbable basketball fan. Rodman’s ill-timed trip while bringing a whiff of levity to North Korea’s dour atmosphere, was ultimately aimed at opening a dialogue between the self-isolated Kim and U.S. President Barack Obama, also a basketball fan.

As this column has consistently stressed, the North Korean communist dictatorship has chosen neutrons for nuclear weapons over nutrition for its own people.

Ironically we see a contradictory situation where the U.N. Security Council slaps tough sanctions on the North, while at the same time U.N. humanitarian agencies are the major source of food and humanitarian assistance for at least a third of the North’s population.

Though Kim continues political tantrums in his fortified Pyongyang playpen, the reality remains that the land he rules stands as a neo-Stalinist totalitarian hell save for the occasional sporting jesters the dictator brings into town to amuse him.

In its latest report on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” documents “grave, systematic and widespread” human rights violations in North Korea. Interestingly this is the 22nd such report since 2003 and reflects 16 resolutions already passed on the North Korean dictatorship.

As in the past, the report outlines a terrifying totalitarian balance sheet where human rights and basic freedoms are stifled by a regime that would make Big Brother wince. North Korea’s communist rulers use widespread torture, gender discrimination and intimidation to control the populace. Those who have fallen afoul of the regime are part of what the U.N. human rights rapporteur cites as many as 200,000 people in labor camps.

Triggering Pyongyang’s latest tirade was the joint annual South Korean-U.S. military exercises. The force numbers include a laughably small troop contingent of 13,000. Given that nearly one million troops of both sides facing across the DMZ dividing the peninsula, this is simply an excuse for heightened tensions.

One of the classic North Korean political propaganda nostrums focuses on North Korea being taken seriously as a sovereign state. Yet, part of Pyongyang’s outreach program includes threats to devastate neighboring South Korea and to nuke the U.S. And Kim wonders why they he’s not popular?

Remember how critics laughed when former U.S. President George W. Bush rightly labeled North Korea, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Saddam’s Iraq as the part of the “axis of evil? Well?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010).