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Threats And Crises Are 'Just Normal North Korean Diplomacy'

North Korean soldiers marched past statues of founder Kim Il Sung and his son, former leader Kim Jong Il, on Monday in Pyongyang. North Korea celebrated Kim Il Sung's 101st birthday.
Kyodo /Landov
North Korean soldiers marched past statues of founder Kim Il Sung and his son, former leader Kim Jong Il, on Monday in Pyongyang. North Korea celebrated Kim Il Sung's 101st birthday.
On 'Morning Edition': Steve Inskeep speaks with Andrei Lankov about North Korea

Monday is "the day of the sun" in North Korea — a celebration of founder Kim Il Sung's birth in 1912.

On this North Korean national holiday, "Pyongyang residents spilled into the streets," The Associated Press writes. "Girls in red and pink jackets skipped along streets festooned with celebratory banners and flags and parents pushed strollers with babies bundled up against the spring chill as residents of the isolated, impoverished nation began observing a three-day holiday." And there was a marathon in the North Korean capital.

It was also another day for the world to watch and wait to see what new provocation might come from the nation now led by Kim Jong Un, the founder's grandson. As we've been reporting in recent weeks, the North has been issuing threats almost daily and claiming it's back at war with the South and the U.S. The conventional wisdom is that "tensions are rising" on the Korean Peninsula again — and Secretary of State John Kerry has been visiting the region to consult with leaders in South Korea and China about this latest "crisis."

We put "crisis" in quotes, because of what Professor Andrei Lankov from Seoul's Kookmin University had to say early Monday on Morning Edition. He studied in North Korea in the 1980s and keeps close watch on what happens there. He told NPR's Steve Inskeep that:

-- This is "just normal North Korean diplomacy. When North Koreans believe that it's time to start negotiations [over their nuclear ambitions, for instance] in order to squeeze more aid and political concessions from the outside world, [they] start from manufacturing a crisis. ... They promise usually to make Seoul or other capitals enter a 'sea of fire.' And the world media run headlines about the Korean Peninsula being on the brink of war. Of course, it's not on the brink of war, it's just [the] normal show."

-- The North Koreans are "very, very rational. ... Why do the foreign media, why do people overseas consider Kim Jong Un to be suicidal? ... If he attacks he will be dead in 10 or 15 minutes and he knows it perfectly well. He is not suicidal. He is a young boy who is madly in love with his wife, who loves fast cars and a slice of pizza. And the people around him are not suicidal. They are hard-nosed, cynical Machiavellians who survived decades in the cutthroat world of a Stalinist palace. ... They are not ideological zealots. They are just brilliant manipulators."

Lankov's view echoes that of another North Korean expert, Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, who spoke to NPR last week.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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