Amid tensions on Korean peninsula, patterns revealed in Kim's behavior

South Korea has launched psychological warfare over the sinking of its ship, while North Korea has said its troops are braced for war. The rising tension on the peninsula is worrying many. (May 25)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; 2:47 PM

SEOUL -- What does North Korean leader Kim Jong Il gain from infuriating the outside world and triggering sanctions that heighten the misery of his people?

That vexing question has again surfaced as South Korea and the United States moved this week to punish North Korea for apparently torpedoing a South Korean warship and killing 46 sailors. There was a similar international push last year to penalize Kim's government for exploding a nuclear bomb and launching a flurry of missiles.

Because North Korea has perhaps the most secretive government in the world, there is no definitive explanation for its seemingly self-destructive actions. But there are revealing patterns in Kim's behavior and how it is sold to his isolated people.

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 the increasingly grim circumstances of their daily lives.

"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 the South Korean city of Busan. "Acts of aggression are built into the North Korean system."

After eight years of studying North Korea's internal propaganda, Myers has found that confrontations with the outside world, especially when they involve the United States, are used to legitimize Kim's dictatorial authority and explain away chronic poverty.

That might be happening again. Shortly after South Korea formally blamed the North last week for sinking the 1,200-ton Cheonan warship, Kim's government told the Korean Peoples' Army to get 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 broadcast was not confirmed by the South Korean government, but the 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 its stock market fell sharply on Tuesday after reports of the North Korean broadcast.

"The U.S. and South Korea are committing an act of madness connecting North Korea with the sinking of the Cheonan ship and pledging revenge," O reportedly said. "This has been fabricated and plotted by the U.S. and South Korea to isolate and kill North Korea by pressure."

In its official media, North Korea warned Tuesday that the South Korean navy was trespassing in its territorial waters as part of a "deliberate provocation aimed to spark off another military conflict" in a disputed areas of the Yellow Sea. There have been three naval skirmishes there since 1999, along with the sinking of the Cheonan.

North Korea has repeatedly denied involvement in attacking that ship. It describes South Korea's investigation of the sinking, which was assisted by experts from the United States and three other countries, as a "fabrication," and it has threatened to wage all-out war if punished or sanctioned.

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