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Young North Korean leader’s actions may not be grounded in political reality

by Apr. 10, 2013, 11:06 AM

Rising tensions in the Korean peninsula have Japan, South Korea and the United States on full alert for a possible missile launch from North Korea.

James Auer
James Auer

“A major worry now is North Korea’s young leader, who may not understand the constraints of reality that his grandfather and father didn’t publicly acknowledge but implicitly understood,” said James Auer, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation.

April 15 is a major national holiday in North Korea marking the birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. Known as North Korea’s “eternal founder,” the elder Kim died in 1994. His natal day is marked by military-style celebrations, and there are concerns the North could use the occasion for a show of military strength.

“The current leader may have painted himself into a corner from which he does not know how to extract himself,” Auer said.

Auer, a retired naval commander who spent much of his career in Japan and the Western Pacific and was special assistant on Japan with the office of Secretary of Defense, says any military action on North Korea’s part would result in swift action by the United States.

If North Korea were to fire a conventional weapon at Seoul, Tokyo or at U.S. bases in Japan, the North Koreans would suffer tremendous damage. “Unless they really are insane, they are not going to attack any of the three,” he said.

“The victim in this whole thing is not South Korea or Japan or the United States. It is the people of North Korea,” he added. “Their own people are suffering greatly from malnutrition, from prison camps and labor camps. This is an attempt to distract attention from their failures.”

Auer has written numerous articles and made presentations addressing East Asian security and defense policies. He travels to Japan regularly and lectures and writes frequently in Tokyo and for the Japanese media.

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