Yet their April feint to shut the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which looked like a bluff too, turned out to be serious. That Pyongyang closed it is both worrisome and confusing. As the last major inter-Korean joint venture, staffed by citizens of both countries and providing $90 million of wages annually to North Korea, the complex served to restrain hotheads. It’s now suspended, unlikely to reopen soon, or perhaps ever. When the next crisis rolls around, as it indubitably will, this restraining influence won’t be there. Provocations à la 2010 — when Pyongyang torpedoed a South Korean ship and shelled an island near the border — may thus be likelier.
The puzzle is that North Korea recently said it wants more Kaesongs. On April 1, then premier Choe Yong Rim told the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament: “Joint venture[s] should be actively promoted” and “setting up economic development zones be pushed forward.” A week later the North pulled out its workers and sabotaged Kaesong.
Kim Jong Un reckons he can have guns and butter. Known as “byungjin” in Korean, this is the new party line: both nuclear weapons and a better economy. How Kim will square the circle is unclear. The threats have subsided, but the demands have begun and they remain as unreasonable as ever. To restart Kaesong, Pyongyang insists not only on apologies but also cancellation of several upcoming military exercises. Noting that Kaesong was premised on separating economics and politics, Seoul rightly branded this demand “completely incomprehensible and unfair.”…
Or perhaps this is covert instrumentalism. “Don’t mess with me” is Kim’s message — but to whom? The West? China?