SEOUL — Kim Jong Un, the querulous North Korean leader, said the recent standoff with South Korea was resolved not through negotiation but “thanks to the tremendous military muscle” of the country’s nuclear weapons.
Some analysts have suggested that Pyongyang’s recent eagerness to hold talks with Seoul could be a sign of domestic vulnerability for Kim, whose official titles include first chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.
But according to North Korea’s version of events, last weekend’s confrontation with South Korea was a sign of the former’s strength.
“We protected the dignity and sovereignty of the country, the gains of the revolution and the happiness of the people by our own efforts amid the tempest of the history without anybody’s support and sympathy,” Kim told officials at a meeting to review the “revolutionary measures” the regime had taken over the past week, according to the country’s official Korean Central News Agency.
The news report, published Friday, also said the 30-something leader had dismissed some members of the Central Military Commission, which is responsible for the Korean Workers’ Party’s military policies, and appointed new ones. But it did not say which officials had been replaced. The dismissals follow an extended period of sometimes brutal personnel changes in North Korea, notably Kim’s execution of his defense minister this year.
Tensions between North Korea and South Korea — which technically remain at war because fighting in the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty — escalated sharply this month after two South Korean soldiers were severely wounded in a land mine explosion blamed on the North.
Seoul retaliated by switching on huge speakers that blared derogatory propaganda about Kim across the border, angering the North Korean regime, which treats Kim like a deity. Pyongyang threatened military action if the speakers were not silenced by 5 p.m. Saturday. The standoff was resolved after more than 40 hours of talks when South Korea settled Tuesday for an expression of regret, rather than an apology, from North Korea, and agreed to turn off the speakers.
But with his trademark bluster, Kim said that by proposing talks with Seoul, Pyongyang had cleared “the dark clouds of war that hung over the Korean nation,” KCNA reported.
The regime brought the situation back from “the brink of a war” not through negotiation, Kim said, but with “tremendous military muscle with the nuclear deterrent for self-defense.”
In South Korea, the events of the past week, not surprisingly, are seen rather differently. Analysts were surprised by Pyongyang’s eagerness to hold talks and its willingness to issue a statement of regret without the usual theatrics, which often include eye-popping demands for aid and several bouts of storming from the room.
Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator and national security adviser, said North Korea was practically “begging” for talks after it realized that it was not able to follow through on its threat of military action if the speakers were not turned off.
“By setting a 48-hour ultimatum, the North Koreans were driven into a corner. They could not deliver on their blackmail,” Chun said. “The only option for North Korea was to beg for a negotiated solution.”
This eagerness, coupled with Friday’s report on the latest personnel changes, suggests that Kim was unhappy with the sudden escalation in tensions, partly because he and his military officials seem to have underestimated the ferocity of the South Korean response.
The loudspeaker broadcasts — which called the young leader “incompetent” and made fun of his never having met the leader of another country — came as a “curve ball,” one U.S. official said on the usual condition of anonymity.
But Kim’s larger objective was most likely to create some distance between Seoul and Washington by distracting South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, from efforts to hold talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the U.S. official said.
Talks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program have been stalled for years, and North Korea recently said it had no interest in a deal like the one the United States recently brokered with Iran.