The World from Berlin: 'No One Wants a Total Collapse' of North Korea

The assault on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island by North Korean artillery this week was an act of war -- and a reminder that the two countries are not yet at peace. North Korea is unstable, distracted by a transfer of power, and possibly nuclear-armed. However, editorialists at most German papers argue that world community prefers the status quo to a collapse of North Korea.

Now what? North Korea bombed South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last week. Zoom
AP / Yonhap

Now what? North Korea bombed South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last week.

The sudden and unexpected shelling of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday by North Korean artillery has done more than damage property and kill four people (two South Korean marines and two civilians). The most serious flare-up of violence since the end of Korean hostilities in 1953 has set Western teeth on edge and spurred a round of diplomatic head-scratching. What does North Korea want?

For years, a group of powerful nations has been talking with the communist government in Pyongyang to discourage it from building a full-fledged nuclear arsenal. (North Korea tested its first nuclear device in 2006.) International talks are a game of cat-and-mouse, and if Pyongyang wants a negotiated solution, shelling a South Korean island this week was a bad idea. Pyongyang argues it was a response to southern naval maneuvers in disputed waters, but more is at stake than peace between the Koreas.

In mid-November, North Korea invited a group of nuclear scientists to visit a uranium-enrichment facility, as if to show off what the secretive nation could do. The official tour "confirmed longstanding suspicions that the country was seeking a second route to build atomic weapons," the New York Times reported on Sunday. "(American officials) dismissed the North's claim that it was simply trying to build nuclear power plants denied to them by the West."

Breaking a Taboo

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, South Korea had to soft-pedal a statement by its defense minister, Kim Tae-young, who broached the taboo question of bringing American nuclear weapons back to South Korea. After the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire (but no formal armistice), Washington defended the south with tactical nuclear weapons. They were removed in 1991 as part of a wider vision of a "nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

"South Korea and the US have not discussed redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons," a statement from Cheong Wa Dae, the office of the South Korean president, read, according to the Yonhap News Agency. "The issue is not a subject of discussion."

Complicating matters is that no one seems quite sure who's making decisions in Pyongyang. Since ailing dictator Kim Jong-Il began publicly grooming his son Kim Jong-Un to succeed him, rumors have flourished that the military might be jostling for influence or that Jong-Un himself may have to prove his hold on power. German papers on Wednesday morning attempt an analysis.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"North Korea still denies starting the Korean War in 1950. Pyongyang's claim that the South fired first on Tuesday should therefore not be taken seriously. But the situation itself is serious, even if the South Korean president has warned his military to avoid escalation."

"In a system like North Korea's, a transfer of power creates so much uncertainty for ruling groups that irrational (internal) negotiations can easily erupt into the outside world. The public presentation of a uranium-enrichment facility just days ago could be seen as an attempt by North Korea to bring America and other powers back to the negotiating table. But military provocation doesn't fit this picture. A government that allows such an attack can't be a trusted negotiating partner."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Kim Jong-Il has been trying to hand the reins to his 26-year-old son. But among the North Korean elite, other groups are struggling for power. The young Kim apparently has to show his leadership potential and is therefore allowing the military -- through his connections -- to provoke the south. According to North Korean logic, this helps the embattled crown prince in two ways: Jong-Un shows he's tough, and the military moves more closely to his side."

"Firing on the island was not North Korea's first provocation. A torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March, as well as the exhibition of Pyongyang's nuclear advancements (this month), should also be attributed to Jong-Un."

"The young man needs to prove himself. He may have tried to put North Korea's relatively enormous military into motion. Whether he knows this would spell a quick and certain end to the Kim dynasty is another question."

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"By now outside governments are used to (such provocations by Pyongyang), and they're speculating, a little, on whether the young scion of the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-Un, is trying to impress his own population and the wider world with such heroic gestures."

"But whoever is behind these gestures has accomplished something that should set off alarm bells."

"North Korea has again shown how easy it is to acquire the necessary know-how and machines to develop nuclear weapons ... It's monstrous and irresponsible that the most important powers in the poker game over North Korea's future -- China and the US as well as Russia -- are apparently biding their time because they can't agree on the shape of the (Pyongyang government) once the Kim dynasty draws to a close."

"The world has to assume that the North Korean military is not only purchasing nuclear technology, but is prepared to sell it on to any third party willing to pay enough."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung argues:

"These provocations by the north are more than just needle pricks for the south. It won't be long before radical political forces in the south demand revenge -- or some commander in South Korea's insulted military orders a counterstrike."

"It's therefore worth looking into the probable motive behind North Korea's provocations. First Pyongyang shows off its newest nuclear facility; then its artillery lets loose. The northern dictatorship is demonstrating its power and apparently wants to force concessions from its enemies: more food, more fuel, fewer nerve-deadening negotiations, and an undisturbed transfer of power within the Kim clan. North Korea's aggression is self-protective. The idea is not to conquer (the south), but to prevent its own collapse."

"This excuses nothing ... (but) North Korea is evidently not persuadable with reason, diplomacy or equanimity. In the end the solution may be a forceful, consistent policy of isolation."

The leftist Berliner Zeitung argues:

"The US has said it won't be blackmailed by North Korea. But the more aggressively North Korea behaves, the more pressure Washington must feel to relinquish its hard line. The South Koreans, the Japanese, and the Americans all fear a northern nuclear buildup. But how can it be resisted? No one wants a total collapse of the North Korean system: The South Koreans don't want an expensive reunification, the Chinese want to keep North Korea as an exclusive economic zone, and the US, China and Russia all see the tiny nation as a welcome buffer among their spheres of influence. So the de-isolation of North Korea will continue. Arms races and aggression are easier to control, in the end, as long as a Kim in Pyongyang can hope for certain advantages in negotiation."

Correction: In the original version of this story, SPIEGEL ONLINE inaccurately identified the Cheong Wa Dae. The error has since been corrected.

-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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