The fresh air of freedom is pervasive in South Korea. A visit to Seoul provides direct dramatic impressions of the strength and confidence of this remarkable people. The capital city of the nation is only fifty miles from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), within range of North Korean artillery and rockets.
Yet there is no evidence of current or recent public anxiety, despite the menacing moves of the isolated communist regime in Pyongyang. Earlier this year, North Korea drastically raised tensions. On March 11, the North Korean army declared the 1953 Korean War armistice was "invalid," implying hostilities would resume. The military "hot line" connecting the two countries was abruptly cut. At the end of that month, bellicose threats against the United States were added.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded by describing North Korea as a clear threat, while Secretary of State John Kerry and South Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held a joint Washington press conference to emphasize security partnership.
Pyongyang prevented South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial center, located six miles north of the DMZ, and then shut down the facility entirely. The center has been an important surviving source of hard currency vital to the desperately poor, inert economy of North Korea.
These events and others most likely indicate an internal power struggle. In May 2012, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un publicly criticized those in the military "developing a taste for money" and corruption.
As part of the shakeup which followed, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army, the latest celebratory title sycophants have attached to his name. Whether he is solidifying power, or being weakened and sidelined, is not at all clear.
For several years North Korea has been acting erratically in military matters. In March 2010, a North Korea torpedo sank the South Korean ship Cheonan. In the same vicinity, North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.
In late February 2012, North Korea appeared yet again to cease their on-again, off-again nuclear program. In joint announcements coordinated with the U.S. Department of State, the regime agreed to halt enrichment of uranium and construction of weapons, and permit international inspection. Yet two months later, Pyongyang tested a missile, which ended in embarrassing failure. This unpredictable behavior, unfolding over a long period, implies infighting at the top.
Now North Korea is reversing course yet again, seeking to improve relations with the South. On Aug. 23, the two sides agreed to resume reunions of Korean families separated by the DMZ, after a three-year hiatus, with Pyongyang actually pressing for a faster timetable than Seoul. Also in August, agreement was reached to reopen Kaesong. North Korea has invited U.S. diplomat Robert King to visit to discuss possible release of imprisoned American Kenneth Rae.
South Korea President Park Geun-hye, inaugurated in late February, has addressed these rapidly shifting political and propaganda currents from Pyongyang with calmness and continuity. From the start, she has held out the hand of cooperation, while leaving no doubt about resorting if necessary to her nation’s formidable military capacities.
She leads from great strength. South Korea is a stable representative democracy, and one of the largest, most productive economies on earth. The prosperity of the population overall is strikingly self-evident to this occasional visitor.
North Korea, by stark static contrast, remains a desperately impoverished prisoner state, living on borrowed time.