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North Korea loses war of words as Bank of China halts funds

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 11:04 p.m.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is the grandson of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is the grandson of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung.

The showdown on the Korean peninsula appears to be easing, and the man on the losing end may be the upstart young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In March, Kim ramped up North Korea's seasonal spring war rhetoric to new levels, threatening not only to incinerate the South with his supposed stock of nuclear weapons, but also the United States. He moved missiles east toward Japan and removed workers from an industrial complex jointly run by South Korea.

South Korean and American sources now say the missiles have been quietly moved, no shots have been fired, and tens of thousands of North Korean workers at a joint industrial complex are newly unemployed.

To make matters worse, support from North Korea's major ally appears to be waning in ways small and big.

China is allowing anti-North Korean posts on its Internet sites. More importantly, the Bank of China is cutting ties with its key counterpart in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

The apparent back-down can be papered over by propaganda in North Korea but not in the rest of the world, said Denny Roy, a Korean expert at the East West Center in Hawaii.

“The sharpest signal may be from the Bank of China,” Roy said.

China's action was “a huge signal to North Korea,” said Scott Snyder, Korean expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Though the financial spigot might not be closed permanently, it probably got the attention of North Korean leaders, Snyder and Roy said.

This is particularly true since North Korea closed off one of its few other remaining links to foreign money when it shuttered the Kaesong Industrial Park. South Koreans manage the investor-owned facility, but more than 50,000 North Koreans work there.

There is still talk in the South about possibly reopening the park, but how many of the more than 100 South Korean firms would continue with the facility just north of the border is not known. They have been used as a pawn before when the North has become angry with Seoul.

Snyder said Pyongyang typically does not back down from planned missile launches, so that issue could be revisited in late summer.

But for now, he said, “the situation for the North is more adverse than it was three months ago.”

Kim, who took over North Korea's leadership on the death of his father in 2011, is young and untested. His family predecessors are known for erratic behavior.

“He is the grandson of God,” reminded Roy, referring to North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung. He added that those are pretty big shoes to fill.

Kim, believed to be around 30, has not improved his stature with his series of threats early this year, Roy said. But the older military leadership, which has profited much from the North's “military first” strategy, “needs (the younger Kim) as a front man,” he said.

The big question now is whether Kim is “being used simply as a figurehead. That's a possibility,” Roy said.

It's also possible that the young Kim “wants to be elevated into the pantheon” with his grandfather, he speculated.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is in Washington meeting with President Obama and other leaders to strengthen her country's economic and military ties with its closest ally.

Like her father, former Korean strongman Park Chung-hee, she has appeared to stand firm against provocations from the North and made it clear the South will not back down if attacked.

Lingering in the background for the younger Park, Korea's first female president, is an investigation by Seoul-based prosecutors probing if the South's intelligence service posted negative publicity on websites about her opponent in the recent presidential election.

Her father was closely associated with the National Intelligence Service when it was known as the KCIA. However, the former leader of that agency assassinated Park in 1979.

Lou Kilzer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5628 or

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