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North Korean provocation looming after Soleimani killing

North Koreans march at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, Sunday, in this photo released by North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency. / Yonhap
North Koreans march at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, Sunday, in this photo released by North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency. / Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

In the wake of the drone-led killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, it remains to be seen how the airstrike will affect North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's actions.

Some believe Pyongyang will use the assassination to justify its nuclear program as a necessary form of defense and take its own path toward a nuclear power. But there is also speculation that the North Korean leader may disappear from the public eye ― like his predecessors ― out of fear of a possible U.S. attempt to assassinate him.

On Monday, three days after the death of the Iranian general in Iraq, the North's official media outlets carried their first reports on the incident, hinting that the country may chart a new course.

"There is nothing to hesitate about in the face of growing hostile acts, nuclear threats and blackmail," the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party, said in an article.

"We should continue to strengthen our impregnable military power quantitatively to ensure no one ever considers using armed forces against us until the U.S. withdraws its hostile policy."

Also, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that China and Russia had condemned the U.S. attack as a violation of the U.N. Charter.

Experts say the North Korean regime is likely to take advantage of the airstrike in justifying its attempt to intensify military forces.

"Although the regime may internally feel pressured, it is expected to engage in external campaigns to defend its development of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against U.S. hostility," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Already, the North Korean dictator has vowed to showcase his country's new strategic weapon in a recent ruling party conference, while declaring an end to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests ― although he was cautious about confronting Trump.

Former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Gallucci also told Radio Free Asia that the North Korean regime may take a provocative approach such as long-range missile tests, concluding the U.S. is not going to get involved in its hostile policy toward North Korea and Iran at the same time.

Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, echoed Gallucci's view.

"Due to the growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the U.S. government's interest in the North Korea issue may lessen," he said.

"If the U.S. keeps dealing with the Iran issue until February, the North may consider military provocations including launching an intercontinental ballistic missile and March could be a critical juncture for the North's decision, depending on whether the U.S. and South Korea will resume a joint military exercise and the scale of the military war game."

On the other hand, Kim has been absent from the public eye since the last day of 2019, raising speculation that he may be in hiding after the U.S. pinpoint attack on Soleimani.

"For the time being, Kim may refrain from making public appearances out of fear that the killing of Soleimani means the U.S. can easily find Kim's whereabouts as well," a former government official said on condition of anonymity.

The history also backs up the conjecture.

When the U.S. waged wars with Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Kim Jong-il, the then-North Korean leader, also disappeared off the radar for around two months.


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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