Making No Bones About It

The North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Il resumed its sabre-rattling today, threatening to go to war with Japan if the latter imposed economic sanctions against the DPRK. Earlier, Japan protested that the bones released by the DPRK that supposedly belonged to Japanese citizens kidnapped by the DPRK turned out to be a hoax, enraging Japanese citizens and inspiring suggestions of retaliatory sanctions:

Calls are growing from the Japanese public and politicians for the government to impose sanctions on North Korea after Tokyo said bones Pyongyang had identified as those of Japanese it had kidnapped were from other people.
“If sanctions are applied against the DPRK (North Korea) due to the moves of the ultra-right forces (in Japan), we will regard it as a declaration of war against our country and promptly react to the action by an effective physical method,” a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, monitored in Tokyo.

Kim now wants Japan excluded from the six-nation multilateral talks designed to strip North Korea of its nuclear-weapons capability and stabilize the security situation in the Asia-Pacific rim. This demand intends on unraveling the entire process, since Japan and South Korea are the two most interested parties in the result. North Korea has routinely threatened Japan with attack, and few doubt that a DPRK missile launch would target anywhere else but Tokyo for its first salvo.
This latest wild threat clearly shows that Kim has become desperate to control the outcome of the talks. He needs outside capital to feed his starving nation and to build some kind of economic momentum, but the only way to make that work is either by nuclear blackmail or opening DPRK up to Western influences, since that’s where the capital originates. Kim so far has chosen nuclear blackmail and sees it as a winning strategy, at least in the near term.
Like any other sociopath, Kim lives to manipulate people and systems for his own purposes. Take, for example, the remains DPRK sent to Japan. How difficult would it have been for the NoKos to ID the skeletons before sending them to Japan? Not terribly so, and yet Kim deliberately insulted the Japanese by sending them faked remains, knowing that the Japanese would test the bones themselves. Why? Because Kim knew he could use the diplomatic row that erupted as an excuse to demand Japan’s exclusion from the talks. If the other nations refuse to agree, Kim will walk out of the negotiations, and if Japan withdraws, he will have scored a diplomatic coup.
The other nations in the talks need to start getting on the same page. Instead of South Korea’s insipid response — that sanctions would be counterproductive — the multilateral partners should instead act in concert to get tough on Kim. If China and Russia seriously want to eliminate the nuclear threat that Kim trots out whenever he throws a tantrum, then they need to make clear that any more such outbursts will result in a complete blockade of North Korea, and any attempt at retaliation will bring a swift and overwhelming military response.
Under those circumstances, Kim’s underlings may decide that the continuance of the Kim “dynasty” is no longer productive and remove him themselves. If not, the unity and strength of the message will call Kim’s bluff, and even sociopaths understand when they’re outgunned. Negotiations and dialogue only work when both sides understand that they have a stake in reaching a solution. Up to now, Kim’s only good result is a stalemate, which the multilateral talks have allowed him through wild threats and appeasing replies. It’s time to quit giving Kim his victories on a platter.

North Korea Sending Signals That Something Big Has Changed

Two wire service reports indicate that North Korea has made major changes in its normally fanatical approach to its sovereignty and security. Reuters informs its readers that the hermit nation has suddenly developed a sense of urgency about restarting the six-nation talks that Kim Jong-Il previously joined with great reluctance:

North Korea wants urgently to restart six-party talks on its nuclear programs but is still demanding of its certain conditions be met, a top U.N. official told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Thursday.
North Korea still agreed with the format of the talks, it quoted Jean Ping, president of the U.N. General Assembly, as saying. Officials told him during a visit that Pyongyang was committed to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, it said.
“North Korea not only agreed to the format of the talks but also believes that the talks should restart urgently,” Ping was quoted as saying.

North Korea has hardly been a fan of the multilateral negotiations in the past. Their haste to return to the table sounds like someone else may be making the decisions now, an impression that only gains currency with this report from the French news agency AFP. Not only have Kim’s pictures been removed from public places in Pyongyang, they’ve also been pulled from the lapels of traveling Northerners:

South Korea’s Unification Ministry confirmed that lapel badges of Kim are no longer being worn by North Koreans travelling from the Stalinist state to China on official business.
In the past, they wore either a badge portraying Kim or a similar badge portraying his father, the Stalinist state’s founder Kim Il-Sung who died in 1994.
“North Koreans travelling to and from China who formerly wore the badge of either Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il on their chests, have stopped wearing the Kim Jong-Il badge,” Unification Ministry spokeswoman Yang Jong-Hwa told AFP, citing an internal report from the ministry’s information analysis bureau.

The official party line has Kim issuing orders to put an end to the personality cult he transferred from his father to himself after assuming power. Up to now, the only indication of regime change has been the removal of Kim’s pictures, and the official explanation at least sounded plausible. Now that their foreign policy has apparently evolved, the rumors of Kim’s demise start taking on a bit more credibility. The Reuters article discusses the latest of them:

Rumors circulated in currency and stock markets in Seoul and Tokyo early on Thursday that Kim had been shot dead.
“There have been various rumors about North Korea and some do have an impact on the market, but this time there’s no reaction,” said a foreign exchange dealer at a bank in Seoul.

Something has changed up there. Maybe Kim just decided to get humble after Bush’s re-election, but with the nation starving to death and their neighbors aligning themselves with the US on their nuclear ambitions, one or more of the palace guard may have decided that their Nero needed to go.

An Unclear Picture In Pyongyang

The BBC reports this morning that pictures of North Korea’s personality-cult leader seem to be disappearing from their prominent displays around Pyongyang:

Some portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il have reportedly been taken down in Pyongyang, news agencies quoted diplomats as saying on Tuesday. The portraits were removed from some public buildings, the diplomats said. …
An unnamed diplomat told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass that at receptions hosted by the North Korean foreign ministry, guests had recently only seen pictures of Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, and a mark on the wall where a portrait of the North Korean leader used to hang.
“Only a light rectangular spot on the yellow whitewashed wall and a nail have remained in the place where the second portrait used to be,” the diplomat said.
The French news agency AFP quoted a diplomat as saying that one place where pictures of Mr Kim had certainly disappeared from was the Grand People’s Cultural Palace.

The BBC speculates that Kim may have ordered the removal of the portraits in an attempt to reduce the country’s focus on him, although in the past Kim has certainly promoted the personality cult purposefully. Others wonder if the change means that something has happened to Kim and Pyongyang might be keeping it quiet. The removals aren’t happenstance; an unnamed diplomat told the Russian news service Itar-Tass that orders had been given to take the portraits down.
The Soviets used to keep their transitions secret until the last moment, usually attributing a premier’s absence from official duties to a cold. When the Soviets lost a few premiers within a couple of years in the 1980s, people joked that the Russian cold was apparently fatal. This unusual activity in Pyongyang looks suspiciously like the Russian cold has migrated to the Korean Peninsula.