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Commentary: North Korea has been trolling us all this while

In one week, North Korea went from rumours its leader Kim Jong Un was dead to firing at South Korean guards near the demilitarised zone – and they don’t care what the world thinks, says Robert Kelly.

Commentary: North Korea has been trolling us all this while

This picture taken on May 1, 2020 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 2, 2020 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting the completed Suchon phosphate fertiliser factory in South Pyongan Province, North Korea. (Photo: STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP)

BUSAN: This week, North Korea was once again in the news, and as usual, for all the wrong reasons.

It has again proven that it feels no sense of greater responsibility to the community of states around it, that it feels no obligation to explain itself, that it simply does not care about the rest of us.

This breezy insouciance is why the world remains so suspicious of North Korea. No amount of meetings with leaders like the presidents of South Korea and the United States in the last few years will remedy this problem.

North Korea cannot “come in from the cold” until it chooses to behave better. The trust just is not there, regardless of what joint statements it signs.


The most recent causes of anxiety are the three-week disappearance of supreme leader Kim Jong Un and an exchange of fire, initiated by the North, along the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas.

By now the strange story of Kim’s disappearance is well-known. For weeks, he was unseen in public. Rumours swirled that he was incapacitated, in a coma, dead, and so on.

CNN even said US President Donald Trump had been briefed on this. It turned out to be nothing. Kim was fine. He reappeared at a factory opening, looking to be in normal health.

The next day, North Korea soldiers fired on a South Korean guardpost along the DMZ. In accordance with South Korean protocol, South Korean soldiers fired back.

A convoy of buses carrying participants of an inter-Korean family reunion makes its way through the DMZ towards North Korea in 2018. (Photo: AFP/Ed Jones) A convoy of buses carrying drive past a South Korean guard post and through the DMZ, towards North Korea in 2018 AFP/Ed JONES

South Korea sought an explanation on the inter-Korean hotline. A protest was lodged. Thankfully, no one on the South Korean side was injured.


In both instances, North Korea offered no explanation. It clarified nothing, released no formal statement, and in no other way even noted the concern among outsiders over these incidents.

They simply did not happen in the North Korean media, and it is unlikely North Korean citizens knew of either event.

This non-response is typical. Pyongyang often releases no explanations of itself or its actions. It frequently does not answer the inter-Korean hotline and disregards messages which are literally shouted across the DMZ by South Korean soldiers.

READ: Commentary: Imagine a North Korea without Kim Jong Un. Here’s why you can’t

READ: Commentary: The perfect storm for a COVID-19 outbreak lies in North Korea

When a provocative action taken is too big to ignore, it will simply lie in the face of overwhelming evidence of culpability, as, for example, when it sank a South Korean warship in 2010 or bombed a South Korean jetliner in 1987.

This time, the denialism is not a problem. Kim reappeared and the continuity of leadership concerns expressed by the outside world became moot.

No one was injured in the exchange of fire. The South Korean media, so accustomed to these sorts of shenanigans from the North, gave them a little space but then quickly moved on.

These sorts of stories just do not move the South Korean public much anymore. No one here expects North Korea to behave responsibly, so when it does not, it is not a story.


But the typical North Korean non-response to these recent, ultimately harmless events nicely illustrates why North Korea is so isolated, why it is so difficult to engage with North Korea, even for dovish, outreach-friendly governments like that of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un talks to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in this picture taken on Sep 20, 2018 and released by KCNA. (Photo: KCNA via KNS/AFP)

The disappearance of the leader of a monarchy – North Korea is a family monarchy now, not a communist state – with a huge military and nuclear weapons is a major concern for countries near North Korea.

A shooting incident between countries is also, obviously, an issue of major concern. Yet North Korea felt no sense of responsibility to provide even basic information about either event.

That countries around the North might understandably be worried about leadership succession in a nuclear-armed state prompted no responsible statement from the North for weeks, not even a brief photo-op or comment that leader Kim was in fact okay.

READ: Commentary: As Iran-US drama plays out, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un takes notes

READ: Commentary: South Korea has been exemplary. Even then, it hasn’t slayed COVID-19

The North Korean leadership simply does not care what the rest of us think, even as anxiety grew that Kim might even be dead.

This is, obviously, grossly irresponsible. Kim’s premature death could well spark a succession crisis. As was widely pointed out during the absence, there is no clear successor to Kim.

As a monarch, his male children are the obvious choice, but his children – to the extent we know anything about them – are too young to assume the throne.

Hence, there was much focus on Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong. But she would be an awkward choice. North Korea is quite reactionary on gender norms; it is not clear if Pyongyang’s old guard would accept her. Hence, the fears of a power struggle.

READ: Heir unapparent: If North Korea faces succession, who might replace Kim Jong Un?

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, attends wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam on Mar 2, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva)


On the other hand, perhaps there is, in fact, a succession plan worked out. Perhaps Kim has anticipated these problems and laid out a pathway. We just do not know. And that is precisely the problem.

The North simply does not accept that it lives in a social world, in a world where other states have meaningful security concerns, which even the most basic transparency could allay.

Ironically, that transparency need only be minimal – a short video of Kim walking around two weeks ago would have stopped all this – and such transparency would make it much easier to countries to trust the North and therefore take risks in bargaining with it.

In short, there are high benefits and low costs to better behaviour, but Pyongyang still just will not do it. They just do not care.

The shooting incident is similar. This was likely accidental fire ordered by a local North Korean commander who has since been disciplined. The North might have owned up to it and even apologised.

The mild humiliation of that would be easily outweighed by the trust and accountability gains for the doves in Seoul who desperately want to strike a deal with the North.

Again, just a bit of transparency and honesty here would have been positive for the North. Moon could use it against conservatives and hawks trying to block his détente. But the North simply will not do that.

Again, it just does not care about the rest of us or recognise any legitimate anxiety we might have about its behaviour.

This high-handedness, this refusal to admit the social world of states, that North Korea is not alone in doing whatever it wants, that it generates legitimate security externalities for other countries is ultimately the cause of its deep isolation.

Unless the North exhibits some basic sociality, rule-following, and trust-building, any deal with it will be a huge risk. Hawkish opponents will always insist the North cannot be trusted and will cheat.

Robert Kelly is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.

Source: CNA/sl