A Return to Belligerence in North Korea

Last week saw a carefully choreographed and copiously photographed ascent of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on a majestic white horse up a snowy, wooded path on Mount Paektu. In “the cult of the Kims,” the effective nationalist religion of North Korea, the tall mountain is considered the birthplace of the father of the current “Supreme Leader.”

Kim’s father was actually born in a Soviet military base near Khabarovsk, in southeastern Russia. But North Korean leaders’ assertions, whether about biographical matters, diplomatic ones or military ones, are all to be taken with generous doses of salt.

Which is part of the reason why successive American administrations since the 1953 armistice that ended active fighting in the Korean War have been regularly frustrated and alarmed by the hermit kingdom’s declarations and actions.

There was cautious hope in recent months that some meaningful curbing of the North Korean dictatorship’s belligerence and nuclear advancement might be in the offing.

After a blustery exchange between Kim and President Trump in 2017, when the two exchanged personal insults and threatened to obliterate one another’s countries, both men seemed to settle into a more friendly mode.

The following year, the president and the dictator even met, and signed a historic agreement reaffirming the North’s commitment to the 2017 Panmunjom Declaration pledging North and South Korea to work towards denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Trump subsequently announced that war game exercises between the U.S. and South Korean militaries would end.

And, just over a year ago, the leaders of North and South Korea clasped their hands on the selfsame Mount Paektu of the recent Kim photo shoot, expressing the hope that they would be able to come to some kind of an agreement to finally and truly end the Korean conflict.

But things have now reverted back to belligerence.

Kim Jong Un’s latest horseback outing, commemorated in 71 official photographs, was sending an unmistakable message, not only to the dictator’s subjects but to the U.S. and international community, that he is a worthy heir to his glorious ancestors and a fearless leader unwilling to be cowed by the West.

Making that clear was the official state media’s accompanying the photos of the mountain ride with a quotation from the rider himself, declaring that “the imperialists and class enemies [are making] a more frantic attempt to undermine the ideological, revolutionary and class positions of our Party.”

The statement added that the North Korean leader was preparing his people for “the harshness and protracted character of our revolution.”

It is noteworthy that Kim made a similar grand display of equestrianism on Mount Paektu in 2013, just two weeks before he executed Jang Song-Thaek, ​his uncle and second-in-command. And that he visited the site again in December 2017, shortly after his country successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile and declared itself a nuclear power.

So the recent show of horsemanship is being nervously regarded by some as not only an act of egotism but as a possible signal, too, of some impending action.

North Korea has issued several bellicose statements toward the U.S. in recent weeks, and has also conducted a number of short-range missile tests.

For his part, President Trump, at the NATO summit in London last week, said he has a “good relationship” with the North Korean leaders, but noted how Kim “really likes sending rockets up, doesn’t he?” and resurrected his nickname for the other leader. “That’s why,” the president continued, “I call him Rocket Man.”

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui responded that her ministry “cannot contain its displeasure” at Mr. Trump’s remarks and warned that if the president continues to treat Kim badly, he “will again show the senility of a dotard” — threatening, in effect, to resurrect Kim’s own previous insult of Mr. Trump.

A renewed battle of personal invective, obviously, isn’t anyone’s major concern. What it might come to signal, though, most certainly is: A renewed push by North Korea to advance its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs — and their possible use.

When asked by reporters about North Korea’s continued missile tests on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said that the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world and that he would use it against Kim’s regime “if we have to.”

In response, North Korean Central News Agency quoted army chief of staff Pak Jong Chon as saying that Kim was “displeased” with the president’s “undesirable remarks,” and warning that “the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S. only.”

Like the Kim family legends, much of the bluster emanating from North Korea is disconnected from reality. But it behooves our country to keep a close eye on the famously repressive and bellicose North Korean leadership, which, after all, controls an arsenal of nuclear weapons and is still, technically, at war with its southern neighbor, a U.S. ally.