North Korea Warns South Of Strikes Amid Turmoil

(NEW YORK TIMES 20 DEC 13) … Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea has sent a letter to the office of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea this week, threatening “retaliatory strikes without warning” if it did not stop conservative activists’ anti-Pyongyang rallies in Seoul, officials here said on Friday.

North Korea had often used such heated oratory against Seoul and Washington before. But its latest threat came amid concerns that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, might stage an armed provocation to raise tensions with the outside world in order to consolidate domestic unity following the execution of Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and presumed mentor, who had been considered the No. 2 man in the North.

For analysts and policy makers in the region, Mr. Jang’s execution on Dec. 12 raised disturbing questions: Was it a sign of instability within the secretive regime and if so, will its hard-line military conduct provocative actions to raise its profile amid the internal political turmoil?

In its letter delivered through the border village of Panmunjom on Thursday, the National Defense Commission, a top North Korean governing agency headed by Mr. Kim, condemned recent rallies in downtown Seoul in which anti-North Korean and Confucian activists burned Mr. Kim in effigy, berating him as a “devil” who killed his own uncle. North Korea called the rallies “mega provocations” against Mr. Kim’s authority.

The letter was addressed to the National Security Council at President Park’s office in Seoul, said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry. “We are closely monitoring the North Korean military’s moves, preparing to sternly react to any provocations,” he said.

South Korea ordered its military to be extra vigilant, as analysts warned that Mr. Kim or those who engineered Mr. Jang’s downfall may purge more North Korean officials considered close to Mr. Jang. The South Korean defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, has warned that some hard-line generals in the North might try something reckless to show their loyalty to Mr. Kim.

North Korea’s threat on Thursday came the same day it allowed a group of diplomats and financial officials from Group of 20 countries to a factory park North and South Korea operate jointly in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. Officials from the two Koreas also met there on Thursday to discuss using foreign investment to expand the industrial complex – a project the North appeared to continue to support despite its domestic political troubles.

Also on Thursday, the basketball player Dennis Rodman arrived in Pyongyang on his third trip there to meet Mr. Kim, whom the retired NBA star calls a “friend.”

Mr. Rodman’s trip and the talks at Kaesong came as North Korea began an orchestrated propaganda campaign to show that the reclusive country was quickly returning to business as usual following the highly unusual public purge of a top regime insider. In the past week, its state-run media ran gushing editorials and top generals made speeches during huge military rallies – all vowing allegiance to Mr. Kim as the “unitary center” of the party and military.

“North Korea is using the two-pronged tactic of doing negotiation on one hand and making threats on the other,” Kim Chun-sik, a former South Korean vice minister of unification, said during a seminar on Friday organized by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. “We cannot rule out the possibility that the North Korean military might attempt a local armed provocation to raise its profile.”

The hard-liners within the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea and its military likely engineered Mr. Jang’s purge, according to a paper presented at the seminar by Hyon Song-il, a former North Korean diplomat who works as a researcher at the South Korean government’s Institute for National Security Strategy. Mr. Jang, widely considered a moderate within the Pyongyang regime, had clashed with the hard-liners over policies concerning economic reform and the North’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as over dividing power and economic benefits within the elites, he said.

“On the surface, Jang’s purge appears to help Kim Jong-un establish himself as a monolithic leader,” said Mr. Hyon. “But in reality, the future of his regime is more uncertain because he lost what used to be his biggest supporter to an internal power struggle.”

In a highly unusual admission of dissent within the Stalinist regime, North Korea last week accused Mr. Jang of building a “faction” in a plot to overthrow Mr. Kim’s government. It quoted Mr. Jang as saying that he tried to enlist the help of the North Korean people and soldiers who were unhappy that “the economy of the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe.”

“Jang Song-thaek is one of the very small group of traitors,” Rhee Young-hee, a North Korean worker at Kaesong, said on Thursday, according to media pool reports. “Respected leader Kim Jong-un is with us, so there is no feeling of insecurity.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of the United States told a Pentagon news conference on Thursday that Mr. Jang’s execution highlighted the “unpredictability” of the Pyongyang regime and that “reality of that uncertainty heightens the tensions.”

“These kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation to distract attention from what they are doing inside of that country,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the United States military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the same news conference.

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