Beware of the North Korean Scarf

A main character in the movie “Betrayed” — a 1954 film that takes place during World War II — was a flamboyant and courageous Dutch resistance fighter known as “The Scarf.”  He acquired the moniker due to his daring nighttime raids against the Nazis, made only as a full moon was visible and conducted while brazenly wearing a brightly colored scarf around his neck.  While The Scarf’s courage somehow enabled him to cheat death, his followers were not so lucky — oftentimes suffering heavy casualties.  Not until the movie’s end was it learned he actually was a turncoat, working for the enemy and wearing his scarf, not as an act of defiance, but rather one of self-preservation so the Nazis would not mistakenly shoot him.  

Not accepting an act at face value is a caveat we need heed in assessing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s destruction of a water cooling tower at Yongbyon nuclear facility last month.  

Normally very secretive, the Pyongyang regime invited the international media into the country to witness the destruction of the tower in what clearly was intended as a symbolic and high profile act signaling an end to its nuclear weapons program.  As replacement of the tower would take a year or more, a US envoy to North Korea said of the event, “This is a very significant disablement step.”  But this assumes North Korean integrity. Such an assumption lacks credibility based on Pyongyang’s historical track record.

Despite Pyongyang’s earlier agreement it would come clean on its entire nuclear program and any transfers made of weapons or technology to third parties, it has failed to do so.  And, despite indications one such transfer involved Syria, leading to an Israeli attack on a nuclear facility there (and its ultimate destruction), the US appears willing to give Pyongyang a free pass in ‘fessing up to the extent of such transfers.  

More prudent would be to to question whether North Korea truly has destroyed its nuclear program.  

For decades, Pyongyang’s foreign policy towards the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) focused on acts of aggression.  Collectively, these acts involved unprovoked seizures of US/ROK assets and persons; assassinations and attempted assassinations of ROK officials; violations of ROK territorial integrity as Pyongyang sent intruders south; terrorist attacks against ROK commercial aircraft; etc.  The list is lengthy. For North Korea, following more than a half century of such aggressiveness to suddenly change gears—while not impossible — is highly improbable.

Why too would it feel pressured to destroy Yongbyon as it sees Iran successfully defend against international efforts to stop its program?  A US unwilling to take military action against a second member of the “Axis of Evil” is unlikely to take it against the third.

One also must consider the persona of Pyongyang’s current leader.  Of the two men who have led the country since World War II — Kim Il Sung and, now his son, Kim Jong Il — the latter is much less prone to undertake any act suggestive of a submissive role towards the US or ROK.  This is driven by his power base.  Unlike his father who maintained an equal balance between the military and the party, the son relies solely upon the army.  Hence, he never undertakes actions causing him to lose face.  This is why, despite his promise to reciprocate ROK President Kim Dae-Jung’s summit visit to Pyongyang in 2000 with a visit to Seoul, he has yet to do so.  

By not visiting Seoul, he demonstrates to his military “the mountain comes to Mohammad.”  This was reinforced when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with the Asian “Mohammad” in Pyongyang later that same year and when Kim Dae-Jung’s successor, Roh Moo Hyun, went there as well four years later.  Maintaining an image of strength is all important to the North Korean strongman’s survival.      

Dismantling his nuclear program would be the ultimate sign of submission by Kim Jong Il — and very likely would not go over well with the military.  Why then would he do it?  In truth, there is no apparent reason sufficient to incent him — or compel him — to do so.

While it has been extremely difficult to apply logic to Kim Jong Il’s actions in the past, a certain logic can be applied to the tower’s destruction.  

The facility there is relatively old and in disrepair.  It undoubtedly was rapidly approaching a time so as to be unsafe to operate.  Why not then orchestrate its destruction as a very public act that will suggest to the world Pyongyang is ending its nuclear weapons program. Doing so will also start the flow of various economic benefits to North Korea it would not otherwise receive.  

Considering the only common denominator in the last six decades in dealing with Pyongyang has been its violation of every agreement it has ever made, it is very likely if it has willingly destroyed equipment at Yongbyon, it is because “Plan B” already had been activated. We have seen part of Plan B implemented in Syria — only to be derailed by Israel’s attack.  

But is there more of Plan B we have yet to discover?  Has Pyongyang transferred its technology and nuclear devices to other nations either for their benefit or for North Korea later to reclaim?  And, do additional transfers still remain in Syria?  (It should be noted the CIA report ultimately concluding no weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq also suggested a possible transfer by Saddam Hussein of such weapons to Syria just prior to the 2003 invasion — a fact subsequently supported by Syrian defectors.)     

In the Hollywood movie "Betrayed", The Scarf’s acts of courage instilled confidence in those who bore witness to his deeds — only later did they learn they had been deceived.   We must be much more circumspect in assessing Kim Jong Il’s acts in destroying his nuclear facility at Yongbyon. What we may perceive as an act of submission may well prove to be just an act of self preservation.