On 18 May 2013 the Reuters News Agency reported that North Korea had fired short-range guided missiles off its east coast, twice during the morning and once in the afternoon. The Agency's source was an official from South Korea's Defence Ministry who said that the South would continue to monitor the situation and be on the alert for any further "provocation".
Pretty small beer when one considers that back in February this year, North Korea carried out its latest, universally condemned nuclear test, even against the advice of the country's only "friend", China.
Ignoring China's counsel, official news broadcasts from Pyongyang declared that the country had "...entered a state of war..." with South Korea which by April had escalated to a suggestion of a first-strike, thermonuclear attack against its enemies including the United States.
It will come as no surprise then to learn that on 18 May the North, represented by the Kims, comfortably vanquished the South. Thankfully, the battle was not fought with bombs and bullets but with Ping-Pong balls when the North's Kim Hyok Bong and Kim Jong defeated South Korea's Lee Sangsu and Park Youngsook to win the mixed doubles final of the World Table Tennis Championships in Paris. Kim Hyok Bong told Agence France-Presse:
"We have achieved a quite unexpected result and I am very happy to have won the title and bring pleasure to (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un and my people". The same sentiments were expressed by his playing partner.
Opposing teams from North and South Korea had already competed against each other and on all occasions the relationship between the two teams was described by reporters as "harmonious", with the vice-president of the South Korean Table Tennis Association, Park Do Cheon telling the Press, some of whom appeared to seek a more contentious remark from the North's contestants, that they were all sportsmen and had nothing to say about politics.
The very sporting manner of the Kims' victory acceptance and the apparent friendship between the two teams during the Championship play offs, only underlines the difference between the relationships that could be enjoyed by all Koreans, if they were given the chance, and the isolation and apparent hostility displayed by North Korea's government and military élites. The genuine modesty expressed by the victors is also typical of traditional good manners in Oriental societies and indicates that over 50 years of totalitarian rule has not changed such cultural fundamentals.
All too often and especially of late, the only images to come from North Korea have been bellicose and threatening, possibly preparing that country for an attack by its enemies which simply did not and does not exist. During late March and April this year, North Korea's new, young leader, Kim Jong Un was hardly off the world's TV screens. Accompanied very often by his generals and in front of massed troops or rallies or looking over the fortified border with South Korea, Kim Jong Un's rhetoric and haranguing reached new heights. Along the heavily defended border he was to be seen, presumably in his capacity as Wonsu (Marshall) and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, gesturing as to where imminent attacks upon the South should take place.
The coming offensive was to be directed against other enemies too, most notably the United States and with a standing army of over 1.2 million and the ability to quickly call to arms a further eight million - this in a country of only 26 million! - it would only have been foolhardy for the North's threatened neighbours in particular, merely to have to this all down to bravado. Yet even as the tanks - the North has more than 4,000 compared to the South's 2,500 - and self-propelled guns were massing on both sides of the 38th Parallel border, one couldn't help but get a feeling of the unreality and utter absurdity of the whole scenario. There was the impression that this was all a charade put in place by Kim Jong Un for North Korea's isolated population which is kept ignorant of the outside world, taught a history of events which never happened, and are shown on Korean Central Television - the North's only TV channel - simply what their Government permit them to see, in what is likely to be the most regime-controlled state that has ever existed.
Although the citizens of neighbouring South Korea showed an attitude to all this warmongering of "Here we go again, we've heard it all before," their President, Miss Park Geun Hye, made it very clear that she would stand no nonsense and left no doubt as to her determination to return fire if provoked. There would be no repeat of the angry, but in the end relatively passive response after the sinking of South Korean Navy corvette "Cheonan" in March 2010 which killed 46 personnel and is widely believed to have been caused by a North Korean submarine.
Did President Park's steely response to the North's Kim Jong Un's threats spoil the North's plans or hopes of getting "Danegeld" from a more accommodating South and its allies? Koreans both sides of the border have strong character and their politics, even in the South, can be different to what the Western Democracies are used to.
Park Geun Hye is the first woman to be elected President of South Korea and the leader of the conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party. She is the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, in office from 1963 to 1979. Never married, Ms Park was de facto First Lady of South Korea between 1974 and the assassination of her father in October 1979 by Kim Jae Gyu, then head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. The KCIA chief was later hanged and there was no involvement of North Korea in the assassination. This is not the case with President Park's mother, Yuk Young Soo who was assassinated by a Japanese-born, North Korean agent in 1974.
President Park has herself been the victim of a vicious blade assault during an election campaign in 2006. Her political stance is particularly strong on law and order, no surprise, a "safe and united society" combined with "strong security measures for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula". A long-time battler, if Kim Jong Un and his Government had been looking for a soft touch, then they chose poorly.
On 11 April, Reuters published a photograph that went worldwide. It showed a patrol of North Korean female soldiers on guard duty close to the border with China on the Yalu River. About 10 per cent of the People's Army are females and thermonuclear war just doesn't gel with attractive young ladies wearing their hair loose or ponytailed and wearing high heels and platform soles, with or without guns hanging from their shoulders. It was difficult to believe that just one shell lobbed by a brain-washed, North Korean gunner into Seoul's Metropolitan Area of 20+ million could within hours send nearly two million men into battle along the whole 38th Parallel.
If it can therefore be agreed that it was never the intention of North Korea to go to war, what was this melodrama all about? President Park on 24 May, castigated Kim Jong Un for ..."playing a gamble to escalate tension..." adding that North Korea's policy of building up their nuclear forces and pursuing economic construction would never succeed. The following day the North took exception with her insults to their Supreme Leader, stating that she had revealed her true colours as a "confrontation maniac" and threatening future dire consequences, but the North has undoubtedly been seriously weakened, by its own actions economically. If nothing else, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Region on 08 April 2013, is a truly self-inflicted wound which denied Pyongyang some 25 per cent of it hard-currency earnings and the wages of the (remaining) 53,000 workers which the central government pocketed giving but a portion to the employees.
It all suggests to me that the personality cult surrounding the new Supreme Leader may well have been under threat. After late July 2012, Kim Jong Un was often shown accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju, often described as a former singer with the Unhasu Orchestra of Pyongyang. Many though claim that this is not her real name and that her singing career and other parts of her official biography may, like so much else in North Korea, be a little lacking in accuracy and not have quite the political pedigree expected by "Juche" (North Korea's system of autarky) die-hards. What with an older brother who now lives in Macau and was caught trying to enter Japan accompanied by two women and a boy - his son - under a false Chinese passport! Honestly, what people will do to get in to Disney World plus other family problems. What can an autocrat do?