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THE order to attack and sink a South Korean warship was given directly by the youngest son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, according to a secret MI6 report.
The news emerged as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama met South Korean President Lee Myung-bak yesterday in a bid to contain mounting tension between the two countries. It is being seen as further proof that Kim Jong-il is grooming his youngest son to take over, as he fights the effects of a cerebral haemorrhage.
“In the past, North Korea got whatever it asked for — fertiliser, food, oil, everything,” said a former senior officer in the Korean people’s army who has defected to the South. “When the South Korean government stopped sending aid, the North Koreans got angry.” Lieutenant Im Chun-yong believes that the sinking of the Cheonan was intended to show the world, and South Korea and America in particular, that the Dear Leader and his people will not be bullied or ignored. They want respect.
Will they be satisfied now that their action has sent Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on a frenetic tour of the region — to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul — to try to defuse a dangerous situation? If the reaction of America and its allies becomes excessive, Pyongyang has threatened “all-out war”. It has an army of 1m and 800 ballistic missiles that can allegedly reach not only Seoul but Washington. North Korea’s recent missile testing, however, has gone awry: one missile crashed into the sea a few seconds after takeoff.
The rest of the world can only hope that, like boasting in the dark of economic achievements, North Korea’s threat of “all-out war” is yet more posturing and delusion; that the sinking of the Cheonan was an attempt at a big splash and that business-as-usual will resume.
And while some who have prepared psychological profiles of Kim have concluded he is a "malignant narcissist", others believe that the skilful propagandist who elevated his father from political leader to a kind of deity and secured his family's grip on the state is far shrewder than he's given credit for, at least within the context of the looking-glass world of North Korea.
All of which poses the question: if he's so smart, then what was Kim Jong-il thinking of when he ordered the sinking of the Cheonan? On that, long-time watchers of North Korea are divided, not least over whether Kim Jong-il was personally responsible for ordering the attack.
"The weak but obvious answer about North Korea and Kim Jong-il," says one who lived in the tiny community of a few hundred foreigners in the capital Pyongyang, "is that we don't know much of what is going on. But what we can say is that Kim and his regime simply do not know how the world works. He sees the world through an entirely different prism."
Among the known unknowns is how directly Kim commands his isolated state and in competition with what other interests.
On the Cheonan sinking, Hazel Smith, an academic at Cranfield University, who also lived in Pyongyang as an aid worker for several years, retains some scepticism, believing it is possible that a degraded military might just have overstepped their authority in firing the torpedo.
"North Korea was extremely centrally directed until the virtual collapse of the state 15 years ago when the army effectively took over. Since then, Kim has lived in a symbiotic relationship with the military, their interests overlapping." Smith believes that legislation enacted in North Korea makes it possible to infer – from its toing and froing over issues like the opening of the country's internal market to access to mobile phones – that Kim feels compelled to trim the country's direction to satisfy different factions, including hardliners who oppose any movement towards liberalising the state in any way.
She also dismisses the common characterisation of Kim Jong-il as mad, pointing out that many of the international statesmen who have met him describe him as "astute". Conceding that he is a "nasty, authoritarian" at the head of a military dictatorship, she adds: "Within the specific framework of North Korea, he is a rational and intelligent actor. His actions are easily explicable – territorial defence and regime survival."
Other close observers who believe that Kim did, indeed, order the sinking of the Cheonan, agree with Smith on this point, that far from being deranged, his acts follow a clearly defined logic, not least within the continuing hostility between the two Koreas who fought a brutal war from 1950-53 and remain technically at war. Having been able to behave for years with impunity, they argue, the north has been wrong footed by the increasingly hardline stance of the south's President Lee Myung-bak, including the halting of food aid, who has rolled back the "Sunshine Policy" of north-south detente initiated by President Kim Dae-Jung.