By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A01
SEOUL -- North Korea announced Tuesday that it is severing all relations with South Korea, heightening the risk of armed conflict and creating perhaps the most serious crisis on the Korean Peninsula in more than two decades.
The announcement, which followed the South's imposition of sanctions on the Pyongyang government for apparently sinking one of its warships, all but crushed the last remaining elements of the North-South "sunshine policy" that emerged in 2000, after the first-ever summit between the two Koreas. That meeting opened trade links between the two countries, enabled the South to send food aid to the North and for several years helped prop up the North's weak economy.
Tuesday's move also raised the question of what North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands to gain from infuriating the outside world and triggering sanctions that seem certain to deepen the misery of his people.
Kim's government said it would cut communications with South Korea, close its waters and airspace to its neighbor and refuse any contact with it during the tenure of President Lee Myung-bak, a popular leader who has nearly three years left in office. It also said it would expel South Korean officials from the Kaesong Industrial Park, a joint North-South venture that is a major source of hard currency for Pyongyang. But on Wednesday morning, North Korea used a military hotline to approve the entry of South Korean workers into the Kaesong complex, according to the government in Seoul.
Because North Korea has the world's most secretive government, there is no definitive explanation for its apparently self-destructive actions. But there are revealing patterns in Kim's behavior and how it is sold to his isolated citizenry.
The North's internal propaganda machine uses Kim's defiance of the outside world to whip up nationalist fervor and to distract North Koreans from their increasingly grim circumstances.
"The Kim Jong Il regime has no source of mass support except public pride in military strength," said B.R. Myers, director of the international studies department at Dongseo University in Pusan, South Korea. "Acts of aggression are built into the North Korean system."
In the most recent act comparable to the sinking of the Cheonan, North Korean agents planted bombs in 1987 on a South Korean passenger jet. It exploded in flight, killing all 115 people on board.
But Michael J. Green, a top adviser on Korea in the George W. Bush White House, said there is an important difference between the bombing of the plane and the sinking of the warship. He noted that now the North is mired in "the brittleness and desperation" of an internal succession process that is expected to shift power from Kim, who is 68 and ailing, to his third son, Kim Jong Eun, who is untested and 27 years old. Green also cited the "the danger that Pyongyang may now think it can use force with impunity backed by a nuclear deterrent."
In close cooperation with the Obama administration, South Korea announced measures against Pyongyang on Monday. They include a ban on all North Korean imports and exports, and the closure of South Korean waters to ships from the North -- but do not apply to Kaesong.
The United States and South Korea are also planning joint anti-submarine military exercises off the South Korean coast where the 1,200-ton Cheonan sank March 26, killing 46 sailors. Last week, Lee's government released the findings of an international investigation that blamed North Korea for firing a torpedo that sank the warship.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that the administration is looking "at a range of options" for action against the North, including unilateral economic sanctions. He said it is also reviewing whether to reinstate North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- the Bush administration removed it in 2008 -- but he indicated that was not likely.
In a timely coincidence, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived Wednesday morning in Seoul for brief, previously scheduled meetings with South Korean leaders.
The Obama administration has largely taken a hands-off approach toward North Korea, following the collapse of disarmament talks in the waning months of the Bush administration and Pyongyang's second nuclear test in 2009. The administration appointed a part-time special envoy -- who continued as dean of a foreign affairs school -- and refused to make any concessions to North Korea for its return to the talks.
North Korea has repeatedly denied any role in the Cheonan's sinking and warned that any attempt to punish it could lead to "all-out war." Such threats are a rhetorical commonplace for North Korea, but its announcement Tuesday included specifics that seem certain to hurt the North's imploding economy far more than they will hurt the affluent South, one of the world's major exporting nations.
The State Department characterized the North's announcement as "odd," given the country's isolation. Spokesman Crowley said he "can't imagine a step that is less in the long-term interest of the North Korean people."
Still, there is a regime-preserving method to behavior that from the outside can seem like self-immolating madness. Myers, the North Korean specialist who has spent eight years studying the dictatorship's internal propaganda, said he has found that confrontations with the outside world are manipulated by Kim to legitimize his near-absolute authority and explain away chronic poverty. This is particularly true, he said, when conflicts involve the United States.
That appears to be happening again. Shortly after South Korea and the United States blamed the North last week for sinking the Cheonan, Kim's government told the Korean People's Army to be ready for combat, according to a dissident group in South Korea. The message -- delivered in a statement by O Kuk Ryol, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission -- was broadcast over a cable radio network that is heard in households across North Korea, said the Web site of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group run by defectors.
The defectors' Web site was among the first to report last year on North Korea's bungled attempt to revalue its currency. South Korea's currency and stock market fell sharply Tuesday after reports of the North Korean broadcast.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondent Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.