NORTH Korea seems desperate for attention ever since the United States changed governments and switched its approach to dealing with supreme leader Kim Jong Un. He might be missing the international spotlight that was lavished on him during his historic meetings with former US president Donald Trump and with South Korean ex-president Moon Jae-in.
Since early this year, North Korea has increased missile tests, including the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile, its first since 2017. Then last week, Pyongyang passed a law allowing itself to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against its enemies. With that, Mr. Kim proclaimed that “the status of our country as a nuclear weapons state has become irreversible.”
That should worry the Philippines and others in the region, where countries are focused on nursing their economies from reversals caused by the lingering Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, economic recovery seems to be on track, despite external headwinds that include the ripple effects of the war between Ukraine and Russia.
Also, North Korea's actions may hasten the arms race in Asia. Japan, for instance, is already revisiting its defense policies. Not only does it have bad blood with those in the Korean peninsula, Japan has been repeatedly provoked by missile tests fired in its general direction. And if Japan militarizes, China will likely respond by beefing up its defenses, which of course adds pressure to other countries that already feel threatened by that rising power.
Obviously, North Korea is playing a dangerous game. Should it make a mistake, it could spark a conflict that would be far worse than what the world is seeing now in Eastern Europe. A hot war in the Korean peninsula would draw in the biggest economies of the world — China, Japan and, of course, the United States, which has some 30,000 troops in South Korea.
As said before in this space, North Korea's concept of a nuclear deterrent is archaic. By clinging on to his nuclear arsenal and a missile delivery system, Mr. Kim believes that his country will be safe from attacks. But North Korea already has protection from the nuclear umbrella of its allies, China and Russia.
South Korea, even under a hawkish president, grasps how the protection works. Last month, President Yoon Suk-yeol said that Seoul has no plans to develop its own nuclear deterrent.
North Korea might be confusing fear with respect. South Korea commands respect because of its economic success. Its soft power is also evident in the global demand for its movies and drama series, K-pop and, particularly for Filipinos, Korean food.
As they suffer from economic sanctions, North Koreans might be frustrated or even jealous of their southern brethren's good life. But Mr. Kim could deliver that for his country by steering North Korea toward peace. He can also ensure his country's security by opening up to the world, just like what Vietnam and China did decades ago.
In choosing military spending over funding for food, health care and other basic necessities, Mr. Kim may gain fear instead of respect. More likely, he will rattle only a few countries, those whose plans for economic development are threatened or disrupted by the insecurity created by North Korea's chest-thumping. Still, they may choose to ignore North Korea altogether, since there is little that they can do about its obsession with weapons of mass destruction.
In contrast, larger countries, particularly the superpowers, are unlikely to be impressed by North Korea's military flexing, even if it does rise to a level of concern. They certainly know the problems that creates. But they, including China, also seem to be at a loss for ways to convince North Korea to scuttle its Cold War paranoia. Given the lack of diplomatic options, large countries also are likely to ignore North Korea rather than to appease it.
It is a vicious cycle. The less attention North Korea gets from the world, the harder it seems to be trying. For now, the Philippines and others in Southeast Asia can only hope for a diplomatic breakthrough before a terrible accident happens.
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