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NEWS ANALYSIS

N. Korea's Motives Are 'Unfathomable'

Asia: Pyongyang's contradictory behavior baffles experts. Some see fatal incursion as result of internal power struggle.

September 21, 1996|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Outside of those who ordered it, nobody really knows why a desperate regime angling for food, fuel and friends would blatantly flout international law in a bloody espionage scheme. But the mystery of why North Korea sent a submarine and at least 20 armed spies into the territory of its southern enemy this week has transfixed--and befuddled--Korea watchers.

The secretive Communist regime still has not officially commented on the incident, and the pro-Pyongyang General Assn. of Korean Residents in Japan also declined comment.

But among pundits on Korean affairs, the theories began swirling the day the sub was discovered in South Korea's eastern waters--and the grisly sight of 11 North Korean bodies, shot in the head and lined up in a row, was beamed around the world.

The clues were few, the questions many. Were they spies or saboteurs? Was their landing a pure accident or deliberate provocation? Why now? What for?

Many analysts believe that the incident reflected a power struggle between military hawks and diplomatic doves over whether to maintain the North Korean regime's belligerent, isolationist line or open up to the world with more economic, diplomatic and cultural exchanges.

A power struggle, experts say, would explain the regime's contradictory behavior--launching an international provocation just days after Pyongyang hosted a group of foreign business people at a conference at the Rajin free trade area near the Chinese border.

Tsutomu Nishioka, a Japanese analyst of North Korean affairs and editor of the Korea Today journal, said provocations have consistently occurred after Pyongyang's pragmatists scored diplomatic gains.

When the United States and North Korea were about to begin negotiations in Berlin in April over ending Pyongyang's missile sales, Nishioka noted, the army began a series of intrusions into the demilitarized zone at the truce village of Panmunjom and announced that it would no longer abide by the agreement governing the U.N.-monitored cease-fire between the North and South.

In November, Pyongyang launched military training exercises using four aircraft near the 38th parallel dividing North and South just as the United Nations began funneling rice supplies to the malnourished populace.

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The military also seized a South Korean vessel attempting to deliver rice after devastating floods, long-standing economic mismanagement and the end of barter trade with former Communist allies left the North desperately short of food.

"They increase tensions to block negotiations," Nishioka said, referring to such military leaders as Kim Kwang Gin, first vice minister of the North Korean People's Army, who is regarded as the regime's most hawkish member.

Nishioka and others said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has not been able to assume the unquestioned authority of his father, the late Kim Il Sung--thus prolonging the power struggle and Pyongyang's zigzagging policies.

"It seems that policy coordination is lacking among North Korean ministries, especially between the Foreign and Defense ministries," said Lee So Hang at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. "They are only competing to get the favor of Kim Jong Il."

But Nishioka said Kim Jong Il is closer to the generals than to diplomats.

Even as the North Korean economy totters toward collapse, with its sixth straight year of negative growth and factories said to be running at 30% capacity, the nation continues to pump 25% of its gross domestic product into the military.

And the influence of the generals is rising, according to Vantage Point, a journal on North Korean affairs published in Seoul.

Others theorized that North Korean hard-liners sent agents into the South to encourage leftist Yonsei University students involved in nine days of violent campus protests last month.

South Korean police detained 3,200 students on charges of violence, illegal occupation of buildings and destruction of property after sealing off the campus Aug. 12 to block a rally the government deemed pro-Pyongyang.

The guerrillas "may have been intending to convey a message that Pyongyang is backing them up--with force if necessary," said Kim Chang Soon of the North Korean Research Institute in Seoul.

But some analysts speculated that the mission was a routine training exercise or graduation exam for the military's intelligence school. One analyst said Pyongyang routinely sends infiltrators into the DMZ to perform training exercises such as slipping close enough to the southern side to take a photo, then returning undetected.

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Ahn Myong Jin, a former North Korean special forces member who defected to Seoul in 1993, said six organizations dispatch at least 70 armed agents to South Korea each year. They stay for as long as three months and virtually all return successfully, he said.

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