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North Korea’s ‘military first’ politics are behind recent attacks

If China wants less American influence in the region, it must rein in the North Korean regime.

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With the shelling of our island in the sea of Korea, North Korean military ventures have gone beyond the stage of the terrorist acts of the past, in which they mostly had denied their complicity. Now they are openly flexing their muscles, knowing full well that this kind of behavior will make it next to impossible for the South Korean government to pursue a conciliatory policy toward the North.

Related: North and South Korea clash over tense border

The latest attack came, no less, after South Korea had just shipped rice and cement as relief aid to flood victims of North Korea – and even after North Korea had asked for more rice and fertilizer on a larger scale.

Are we witnessing an overweening confidence resulting from North Korea’s buildup of its military capability? Are its leaders finally desperate enough to resort to strong-arm tactics as the only way out of their economic straitjacket? Do they feel unconstrained in their adventurist course because they are confident that China will always be on their side whatever they may do?

All of these may well explain the latest incident.

'Military first' policy alarming

However, what concerns me above all are the internal dynamics of the North Korean regime that have led to this worsening state of affairs, namely, the “military first” politics it has upheld for so long.

I count myself among those who, while understanding North Korea’s dire difficulties, have been alarmed at the increasing pace of its militaristic turn. Privately, even some advocates of the “sunshine policy” initiated by former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung as a way to get North Korea to moderate and open up also share this concern.

Military virtues have become the dominant values of the society. Military language has taken over political life completely. Any undertaking, whether constructing a building or bringing in the harvest, is addressed in a military manner as if it were a campaign in battle. Leaders are invariably “generals,” although never having served visibly in the military. History reminds us that militarism of this sort that displaces civil society and dominates politics inside a country usually ends up displacing diplomacy with military adventures in dealing with the outside world.

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