A son trying to find his way

How provocative has the United States been to North Korea?

For almost two months, the United States and South Korea have had more than 200,000 ground troops, tanks, helicopters, fighter-bombers, strategic bombers, submarines and destroyers exercising close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the disputed sector of the Yellow Sea on the border between the two Koreas.

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry says North Korea's nuclear missile program is dangerous, and the world is united in trying to stop it. He also said the United States is open to credible negotiations.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry says North Korea's nuclear missile program is dangerous, and the world is united in trying to stop it. He also said the United States is open to credible negotiations.

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When the Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter made a hard landing Tuesday, injuring six crew members, it was noted in passing that the accident occurred at the Jipo-ri Range — about 12 miles from the DMZ.

The U.S.-South Korean joint exercises will continue through April. Supposedly to ease any North Korean concerns, live firings, for example from M1 tanks, are mainly aimed south.

Yes, Kim Jong Un is just the latest family member running a harsh, militaristic dictatorship in which two-thirds of the nation’s 24 million people are hungry and in poverty, while he and others have a relatively luxurious life.

Yes, North Korea has over the years committed violent acts against South Korea and has violated United Nations Security Council resolutions by conducting nuclear weapons tests and developing and testing long-range ballistic missiles. And in recent months, North Korean civilian and military leaders have threatened South Korea and the United States.

But try, for a moment, to put yourself in the shoes of 30-year-old Kim. He succeeded his father in late December 2011 and for the past five months has been maneuvering to consolidate his authority over the Korean Workers’ Party and Korean People’s Army. Early on he replaced three older generals who had been close to his father and talked of getting closer to the people.

He appeared with his young wife, went to a theme park, and talked of solving the food shortage. He got the party last month to adopt a policy of economic development but balanced it with a plan to increase nuclear forces. Last November, he made Kim Kyok Sik defense minister, choosing a hard-line general who was accused of the shelling of a South Korean border island in 2010. He also chose a reformer, Pak Pong Ju, as prime minister to replace Vice Marshal Kim Jong Gak, a member of the military.

Last month, he called on the United States and South Korea to halt their annual joint exercises and then released a torrent of threatening rhetoric.

What better way to solidify power, as the youngest world head of state, than to go further than his father and grandfather in challenging — at least verbally — the United States?

My perspective on North Korea is informed by history — including my own. In 1970, I visited the DMZ during an 18-month period when I worked for Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Directing a probe of the military involvement in U.S. foreign policy, I was in South Korea to learn what U.S. forces in Korea were doing, along with Seoul’s role as a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War.

Two things I learned then still influence me.

In a briefing at the DMZ, I learned tensions were high because of events two years earlier. In late January 1968, North Korean commandos had raided the Blue House presidential residence in Seoul in a failed attempt to assassinate then-President Park Chung-hee. Days later, North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, a U.S. electronic intelligence gathering ship that was outside the 12-mile limit but within an area claimed by the North Koreans.

In the intervening time, patrols from both sides worked within the DMZ, which is 160 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide. Sometimes the frequent confrontations became firefights. That dynamic has continued, reflecting the ups and downs of political relations.

The other point I never forgot: U.S. fighter-bombers, stationed in South Korea, trained by flying toward the DMZ and at the last minute turning right, dropping their bombs parallel to the DMZ. When I asked why the North Koreans wouldn’t consider that threatening, I was told it had been happening for years and Pyongyang was used to it.

Back then I also learned that the United States had for years stationed tactical nuclear bombs and nuclear artillery shells in South Korea, some within 10 miles of the DMZ. Such knowledge led the North Koreans to begin their pursuit of nuclear weapons — first from the Soviet Union, then China and finally from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan.

The George H.W. Bush administration moved the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. That year, North and South Korea signed a joint declaration that called for a bilateral nuclear inspection regime to verify the peninsula’s denuclearization. Negotiations on inspections never came to fruition, and the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994 led to new tensions.

There have been starts and stops in nuclear weapon negotiations since.

North Korea’s three nuclear tests and its satellite in orbit have made the new North Korean leader appear to be a greater nuclear danger. Some specialists expect more than rhetoric, given that in 2010 his father attacked a South Korean ship and shelled an island.

In a situation like this, our provocative exercises with Seoul have the plus side of preparing us in case North Korea goes beyond just firing off military bluster.

 
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