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Dangerous power struggle
in North Korea?

Gunnar Westberg, TFF Board member

June 12, 2009

Recent developments in North Korea have been the subject of much speculation in Western media. In the West, we do not know a great deal about what goes on within the leadership of DPRK: the information we receive is unreliable and we hear little from the North Korean side.

This article is based on information received from open sources from both North and South Korea, the USA, as well as experts with some direct access to the discussions in the DPRK leadership.

In summary, the article makes the following points:

1. There is an ongoing fight between the military leaders and certain politicians, especially those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomats. During the last year the military has in general taken the decisions regarding foreign policy

2. The military has little information, experience or understanding of the world outside North Korea. They believe they can win a war against South Korea, and are even talking of the need for a war against the arch enemy, Japan.

3. Many politicians in Pyongyang see with great regret that recent actions by the DPRK have contributed to increased tension in the area. The risk of a war is great. A mistake, a provocation e.g. in the controversial boundary waters, could lead to a war. The military leaders would not yield.

4. Little is known about the state and status of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.


The nuclear weapon

During the Korean War, US General MacArthur threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. Korean prisoners of war who had experienced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came back telling of this terrifying weapon. These two factors are said by North Koreans to be the reason the Great Leader Kim II Sung decided to start a program to build nuclear weapons.

The North Koreans chose to build a plutonium bomb. This fitted with the concept of “self-reliance” in the Juche philosophy of the Great Leader. The research reactor in Yongbyon could, after some initial assistance from the Soviet Union, be built and run without foreign help. Enough plutonium has now been extracted for four to eight charges.

To build a plutonium bomb is, however, difficult. The first charge to be tested, in October 2006, after decades of work, was almost a dud. But the second to be exploded, on May 25 2009, US Memorial Day, seems to have worked perfectly. No notice had been given prior to the test; if it had failed we would not have known.

Whether the remaining few bombs would detonate as intended we do not know, and maybe the DPRK military is not confident either. There are no reliable missiles able to carry these warheads e.g. to Japan. It matters not. The bombs are not to be used. They are a political weapon intended to deter a possible aggressor, and they give the DPRK military more confidence. As long as the DPRK generals believe that the US and South Korean generals think the bombs may work, that is enough. The successful nuclear weapons test has also performed its second objective, to strengthen the influence of the generals in Pyongyang.

Negotiations regarding the nuclear program have been going on, or on and off, for at least fifteen years. They have brought status to DPRK and its leader, in the country and abroad. They have been used to extort oil and rice. Several times the talks have been interrupted. Seen from the DPRK perspective, the US partner has not kept its side of the agreements. To be named a part of the “axis of evil” stopped the cooperation for some time.


Obama offered hope but only for a short time

Recently, incoming US President Obama brought hope also for North Korea. However, soon after the beginning of Obama’s presidency, there was a very large military exercise in South Korea in which the might of the US forces was on display. DPRK protested, after which came the missile test. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemned the test and threatened to implement sanctions. Pyongyang, in turn, threatened that sanctions would provoke a strong reaction from North Korea. Why are we among all nations prohibited from launching a satellite was the question from Pyongyang.

When DPRK tested the nuclear charge, on US Memorial Day May 25th 2009, UNSC again condemned the move and threatened to apply new sanctions. South Korea, who has joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), declared its intention to board DPRK ships in international waters if there was a suspicion that the ship might contain “weapons of mass destruction”. PSI is a multilateral agreement between many nations, however, DPRK is not a member and, therefore, a boarding in international waters would be illegal.

It is perhaps more likely that such an incident would occur in the disputed waters along the 38th parallel, where military actions have occurred previously. North Korea made a declaration that this threat from South Korea constituted a violation of the Armistice Agreement (1) and an act of war. Consequently, the Armistice was declared void by DPRK. Additional short range missiles have been tested and a long-distance missile is being prepared for launching.


The increasing power of the North Korean military could be a new dangerous development

Why, we asked, did DPRK take this road? DPRK could have accepted the invitation from President Obama to bilateral negotiations; DPRK knew that Obama could not stop the military exercise; the UNSC sanctions may never have materialised, or could have been short-lived. Instead, DPRK chose a route which has led to increased tension, and an increased risk of war.

According to our sources, many politicians in DPRK, particularly in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wanted to resume negotiations, however, the military decided against this, saying that: negotiations have failed time and again, only military strength counts; South Korea does not want a conflict, they could not handle millions of refugees; and now that DPRK has nukes as a deterrent, USA and South Korea want to avoid a serious confrontation. 

The generals say (and believe) they can win a war! They even talk of the need to attack Japan. The DPRK military leaders are totally isolated from the rest of the world. They have talked about their invincible force for so long now that they have come to believe their own words.

The situation is very tense and dangerous. Generals who believe they are invincible are always dangerous. They might want to provoke an incident to show their strength, and maybe impress the Dear Leader. US and South Korean politicians and military should tread with the greatest caution.

After all, we understand very little of what goes on in North Korea.


Gunnar Westberg
Board member of TFF
Past President of IPPNW


1 At the end of the Korean War (1950-53) no formal peace agreement was concluded; only an agreement on the conditions of a cease-fire was reached.


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