From sacred Mount Paektu, the Korean peninsula’s highest peak on the North’s border with China, to the 10,000 spire-like pinnacles of Mount Kumgang just above the line with South Korea, Kim Jong Un has cast himself of late as the bold, fearless, iconic leader literally daring to ascend the highest peaks in pursuit of power over the divided country.
There’s nothing remotely subtle about the campaign that has pictured him on a white stallion riding through the early snows of another frigid winter on Mt. Paektu or striding up the slopes of Kumgang.
It’s all about projecting the image of a hero in a campaign of intimidation aimed at both the U.S. and South Korea in a climactic drive to get President Donald Trump and the South’s President Moon Jae-in to yield at last to his demands.
And now Kim had added some very important missile tests to his message. In a sequence that clearly had been pre-scripted as the second act after those daring ascents, North Korean gunners test-fired what the North’s Academy of Defense Science proudly described as “super-large multiple rocket launchers.”
Kim, having already appeared as a fit if somewhat portly outdoorsman, did not have to be standing by to press the button. While that image of the brave warrior dominated the state media, the academy reported “the perfection of the continuous fire system” as “verified through the test-fire to totally destroy with super-power the group target of the enemy and designated target area by surprise strike of the weapon system of super-large multiple rocket launchers.”
The ferocity of the test, at least as claimed, carried one especially disturbing message. That kind of firepower isn’t for use against American or Japanese soil, but could devastate America’s largest overseas base at Camp Humphreys, 40 miles south of Seoul, 60 miles below the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.
The base, no doubt shielded by all manner of sensors, missiles and other wizardry, has got to be a sitting duck for the North’s increasingly advanced weaponry. Most of America’s 28,500 troops in Korea, plus families and civilian employees, are now there after the closure of U.S. bases below the DMZ and withdrawal of the central headquarters for U.S. Forces Korea from the historic Yongsan base in Seoul. Nearby Osan Air Base is headquarters for the Seventh Air Force, also an easy target.
“Megabase in Korea’s Danger Zone,” is the cover story in this week’s Army Times magazine. The North Koreans “said they’ve been developing these weapons to be able to strike a ‘fat target,’” David Maxwell, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who spent years in Korea as an army officer, is quoted as saying. “We assume that the ‘fat target’ is Camp Humphreys as well as Osan Air Base.”
Even as U.S. forces were moving into Humphreys, writes Kyle Rempfer, “North Korea has developed large caliber rockets and ballistic missiles as well as a nuclear capability” within range of the expanded 3,500-acre base. “North Korea’s 300-millimeter multiple rocket launchers and new KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles both have an advertised capability to reach Camp Humphreys.”
Not-to-worry is, nonetheless, the soothing message from Moon and his aides. Echoing Trump’s earlier expressions of non-concern about the North’s short-range missile tests, South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, said the latest shots, the 12th this year but the first in a month, were not “very grave threats.” In fact, he argued, “our missile defense and intercept capabilities” are “absolutely superior.”
With two months to go before the end-of-year “deadline” set by the North for the U.S. to propose a new deal, however, the testing assumes seriously intimidating overtones. At the top of the North’s demands are an end to sanctions and a “peace declaration”– but no real end to its nuclear program, long since sanctified in the North’s constitution.
As for Moon, Kim has come up with a bargaining tool that demonstrates the futility of any deal with North Korea. He’s demanding South Korea demolish or remove an entire tourist resort at the foot of Mount Kumgang, aka Diamond Mountain, heaping scorn on what was once the most visible showcase for promoting North-South rapprochement.
North Korea’s state media is dressing up the demand with images of Kim, sporty in a white shirt tailored to fit his contours, appearing to conquer Kumgang on foot just as he rode up the slopes of Paektu on a white horse. Whether he got to the top of Paektu on the horse as claimed, the imagery from Kumgang leaves no doubt he trudged only far enough for a photo-op that provided the setting for his message to Moon.
Packing 290 pounds on his rotund five-foot seven-inch frame, Kim was not at all fit for the hike. Missing are photographs showing him at the majestic Kuryong waterfall, which tumbles 84 meters down granite cliffs. Only four kilometers up the trail, it’s the destination for just about everyone else who’s been there.
Also further up the trail, a special wooden bench, lovingly painted and repainted a sparkling dark blue, is said to be exactly where Kim Il Sung sat to gaze on Mount Kumgang, some of whose many pinnacles are often lost in the clouds far above. A low-lying chain link fence keeps disrespectful tourists from sitting where the late “Great Leader” once sat. No doubt Kim Jong Un would love to plant his ample posterior on granddad’s bench, but he got nowhere near it.
Rather than at the falls or on the bench, Kim is seen with imagery selected and edited to give an impression of an indomitable figure conquering the mountain. Shots show him with a stout walking stick standing on a footbridge, smiling with aides in a clearing, edging by large boulders, his coyly smiling wife, Ri Sol Ju, close behind. Viewers don’t need to know all these photos were staged where the trail begins.
The scenic setting provides the backdrop for a shocking message to South Korea—and the U.S, too. In a devastating setback to South Korea’s efforts at reconciliation, Kim declared the facilities built by South Korea’s largest construction firm, Hyundai Engineering and Construction, were “ugly” and “unpleasant” to look at. North Korea has demanded South Korea set a date in writing for removal or demolition of all of them, including 10 hotels, sports and entertainment facilities, a duty-free shopping center and dozens of individual structures to accommodate tour groups.
Kim’s denunciation of the facilities at Kumgang, which also include an 18-hole golf course and a hot springs spa, is a calculated rebuff to President Moon, who still fantasizes about reopening the resort to South Koreans. Seoul has barred them from going there ever since a South Korean woman was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier in July 2008 while wandering outside the tourist area to gaze at the sunrise. Another problem is how to get around sanctions blocking commercial transactions with the North.
It was as though Kim wanted to portray himself as a daring sportsman, a larger-than-life character afraid of nothing before getting down to the serious business of dissing the South as punishment for Moon’s failure to stand up to U.S demands for the North to give up its nuclear program.
As for the U.S., Kim’s heroics provided the window-dressing for a series of intimidating messages for his friend President Trump. After the North’s state media put out photos showing Kim as a virile figure fit to climb any mountain, subordinates came out almost daily with threats against the U.S. for dithering on a deal.
“The Korean peninsula is at a critical crossroads,” said the country’s second ranking leader, Choe Ryong-hae, at a confab of the so-called non-aligned movement in Azerbaijan. The choice was “either moving towards durable peace along with the trend of detente, or facing again a touch-and-go crisis.”
That warning came after another top leader, Kim Yong Chol, resurgent after having been reported in May to have been executed for the failure of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, said Trump had better not count on his friendship with Kim to keep the North from testing nukes and missiles.
"The U.S. is seriously mistaken if it has the idea of exploiting the close personal relations” between Trump and Kim, said Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official news agency. The U.S., he said, is now “more desperately resorting to the hostile policy” toward North Korea.
Those stern words, coming right after Kim’s shows on Kumgang and Paektu, left the South Koreans with no convincing response.
South Korea’s unification ministry called for “creative solutions” to the entire problem of dismantling the resort complex and keeping Kim happy. North Korea turned a cold shoulder to the South’s suggestions for “individual” tours that might avoid sanctions.
Kim’s current observations from the bottom of Kumgang were meant to show how South Koreans desecrated this scenic wonderland when they opened it to tourism in deals made by South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung, the country’s president from 1998 to 2003.
“Mt. Kumgang is our land of blood,” Kim Jong Un is quoted as saying. “We have our own sovereignty and dignity on the cliffs and trees.” Those hideous South-made structures, he said, were “severely damaging the landscape” and “neglecting the management of cultural tourism.”