North Korea

Reading the silence of North Korea

Richard Halloran wonders why Kim's focus is on US basketball star, not South Korea's new president

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 March, 2013, 2:51am

Something curious is going on in North Korea. The Pyongyang propaganda machine that regularly spews overblown rhetoric in the direction of South Korea, Japan and the US has been strangely silent about the inauguration of President Park Geun-hye in Seoul.

Indeed, North Korean leaders have not mentioned her name in public since mid-December, just before she was elected.

In particular, the regime of Kim Jong-un has ignored the call in her inaugural address last week for North Korea "to abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay". If it didn't do so, she asserted, "the biggest victim will be none other than North Korea itself".

Instead of the withering rejection that might have been expected, there has been total silence.

The government-controlled North Korean media has paid more attention to a visit by the American professional basketball star Dennis Rodman, who was known for his antics on the court. He and Kim watched a game together.

Why this uncharacteristic quiet from a regime that once contended that South Korea, Japan and America would "perish in a sea of flame"? As with much related to the secretive Hermit Kingdom, outsiders can only speculate on the motives:

  • Quandary: North Korean leaders, products of a male-dominated society similar to that in the south, have not figured out how to deal with Park, the first woman to be elected president of South Korea.
  • Wait and see: Kim is holding back until he and his key subordinates discern the course Park sets once she gets her administration in place and makes specific proposals for a dialogue or negotiation with North Korea.
  • Offensive: Sooner or later, in the North Korean view, Park will do something the North Koreans will consider "offensive". They will then respond with their customary vitriol.
  • Democracy: The example of a vigorous election campaign ending with vast numbers of South Koreans going to voting places to cast their ballots for a freely elected president is not an experience that the North Koreans want to publicise.
  • Nuclear: Since the Korean Central News Agency has been awash with self-congratulatory accounts of Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, Kim may believe that his government has made its point sufficiently - even to Park.

The silence that generated in Pyongyang may just be the calm before the storm.

If the North Koreans run true to form, Kim's regime will conjure up a test of Park, who may then show the world that she intends to be the Iron Lady of Korea.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington