Luckily for Pyongyang, all now seems quiet on its southern front. The biggest takeaway from this crisis is the vulnerability of the regime, under the 32- or 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, to attacks on its legitimacy. The fiery rhetoric, belligerence, and unpredictability of Kim, who took power after the death of his father in Dec. 2011, belies an apparent hypersensitivity to criticism about his qualifications to run the country. North Korea wanted only one thing–to stop the loudspeaker broadcasts criticizing the regime. And it was willing to give something it has not given since 1976 – a (near) apology.
The broadcasts are the key reason that Pyongyang made a deal. Before the crisis abated, the North issued an unusual ultimatum directly to South Korean national security advisor Kim Kwan-jin, threatening to attack not in response to U.S.-ROK military exercises, but if the speakers were not silenced. Propaganda broadcasting had been a staple of the two Koreas’ psychological warfare during the Cold War. But the new broadcasts, which Seoul restarted after an 11-year hiatus in response to the landmine blasts against its soldiers, were different from the knee-jerk anti-North Korean government propaganda of the Cold War. The recent broadcasts featured young females, who identified themselves as defectors, criticizing the Kim regime for its poor governance, human rights abuses, and isolation.
A recent broadcast segment featured a well-known North Korean journalist-turned-defector, Ju Seong-ha, who mocked photos of the rotund Kim’s getting off planes like an exalted state guest. Sweet voices carrying powerful messages from eleven locations along the DMZ penetrated the minds of young, undernourished and overworked North Korean soldiers. With better technology than the Cold War days, these broadcasts went deeper than before, blasting messages–and sometimes K-Pop–more than a dozen miles into the country. This certainly rattled Pyongyang.
This is not the first time North Korea has demonstrated such sensitivities. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s Feb. 2014 recommendation to refer North Korea’s leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity freaked out North Korea, forcing them to do things they don’t normally do. The regime sent its foreign minister Ri Su Yong to Russia for the first time in four years, and dispatched seasoned diplomat Kang Sok Ju to a tour of European capitals to lobby against the resolution. And finally, there was Pyongyang’s apoplectic late 2014 rage in response to the movie The Interview which ridiculed the leadership, and led to the North’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures.
These responses reflect weakness, not strength. The regime has proven hypersensitive to questions about Kim’s legitimacy, suggesting difficulties in the leadership transition. Four years into his rule, Kim has purged and executed around 70 of his top lieutenants, including his influential uncle Jang Song Thaek, and his defense minister Hyon Yong Chol–reportedly for sleeping during military events. And these are Kim’s people–not those of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il.