The dictator’s bluster falls on deaf ears in South Korea and, worse still, in America.
If his spooks in Seoul dare tell him the truth, then North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, knows that all his threats against South Korea and its president, Lee Myung-bak, have made little impression. Since his inauguration a year ago, Mr Lee has made it clear that he will engage properly with the North only when it really begins to dismantle its nuclear capability.
The stand has infuriated Mr Kim. For months he has abused the South Korean government. He has threatened it with “all-out confrontation”. In December North Korea expelled most South Korean officials from the Kaesong industrial complex, a symbol of economic co-operation. In late January it repudiated a 1991 agreement on reconciliation, non-aggression and co-operation between the Koreas. It says it will no longer honour the western maritime boundary between the two countries, known as the northern limit line, long disputed by the North. This week South Korea’s press reported that the North Korea seemed to be making preparations to test-fire its Taepodong-2 missile, whose theoretical range of 6,700 kilometres (4,200 miles) would reach Alaska.
In a televised discussion, Mr Lee dismissed the threats as “not new”. Ordinary South Koreans seem equally impassive, although South Korea’s navy takes seriously the possibility of another clash in the Yellow Sea—the last, deadly, one was in 2002. Choi Kang at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a think-tank, predicts that the North will test South Korean resolve to defend the northern limit line.
Mr Kim’s bluster is probably intended more for an American audience than a South Korean one—as well as for his own people. After an illness last year, the 66-year-old may want to show his grip on the country. Rallying North Korea’s army to his side by (verbally) attacking South Korea is an old trick of Mr Kim’s. What is more, says Ren Xiao of Fudan University in Shanghai, North Korea feels “marginalised” by America, as President Barack Obama’s new administration gets to grips with a daunting agenda. Through brinkmanship, says Mr Ren, North Korea is reminding America of its existence and, it thinks, putting pressure on it to change its supposedly hostile policy. If there is one thing the tinpot dictatorship hates, it is to be ignored.
Like any thrower of hissy fits, the North can switch on the charm, too. At a banquet in Pyongyang last month for a big Chinese Communist Party cheese, Mr Kim assured his guest that he was making efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.
Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, now at the Asan Institute, a think-tank, says that this behaviour is to be expected. North Korea regularly seeks to show a smiling face to China and America, while keeping a stern one for the South. It is incensed that Mr Lee’s administration will not discuss honouring inter-Korean agreements signed by Mr Kim when he met with then South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, in 2000 and 2007 respectively.
Both these presidents were also the targets of abuse at the start of their five-year terms, before historic meetings with the Dear Leader. Mr Lee may yet have such a summit too. For now, time is on his side. Last month he named Hyun In-taek, the architect of his tougher strategy towards North Korea, to run the unification ministry, which traditionally conciliates the North. The president promises massive aid and investment, with the aim of raising North Korean income per head to $3,000 a year within a decade, if only the North gives up its atom bombs. As Mr Lee sees it, the ball is firmly in Mr Kim’s court.