The power dynamic is changing fast: Kim Jong-il looks to be bending to his hawkish generals—rather than the other way around—in order to solidify the rickety succession to his son. Though he has no prior military experience, the younger Kim was given a four-star-general rank this September during a rare party conference.
It’s this infighting, rather than an urge to return to the six-party negotiating table, that likely drove the recent aggressions. Historically, the North Koreans have never cut a deal with weak foreign leaders, and both Washington, with its midterm election rout of the Democrats, and Tokyo, with Naoto Kan’s record-low approval ratings, have embattled leaders. More strategically, the Pyongyang regime may sense that it’s not going to get a favorable—or long-lasting—deal until after 2012, when the U.S., South Korea, and Russia have their presidential elections and Hu Jintao steps down in China.
The internal jockeying has the grave potential to tip the Korean Peninsula into more serious or sustained fighting.