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North Korea

Pyongyang's saber-rattling has Germany worried

North Korea seems to take confrontation with the United States and South Korea for granted. That hardline stance has German politicians worried the situation could escalate further.

North Korean television has set the scene for war: amidst all the military films being broadcast, a brief video is aired again and again with leader Kim Jong-un showing his generals how a handgun works. "It's all martial and war rhetoric going on there," said Manfred Grund, a Christian Democrats parliamentarian who visited North and South Korea over Easter. He was glad to get back in the airplane and fly home, he said.

After all, war scenarios aren't just limited to North Korean state television at the moment. Shots of one form or another have been fired for months: first North Korea decided on missile-testing in December. When the United Nations stepped up sanctions against the insular military dictatorship as a result, North Korea responded shortly thereafter with an underground nuclear weapons test.

For weeks now, the United States has been stepping up arms and security to assist South Korea and protect its own military bases in the region. North Korea has threatened the United States with a "pre-emptive attack": on Thursday, April 4, 2013, the North Korean army announced that a nuclear attack against the US had finally been approved. North Korea has also already moved at least one medium-range missile to its east coast, with unconfirmed reports on Friday saying that a second missile had also been moved.

Meanwhile, Germany has summoned North Korea's ambassador in Berlin to its foreign ministry. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said Pyongyang's ambassador was "bluntly told of the very great concern of the federal government at the escalation for which North Korea was responsible," Reuters new agency reported.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was taking "all the necessary precautions," citing "prudent measures" in response to possible military threats.

Politicians hoping for de-escalation

Until now, none of the European diplomats and development aid workers - including many Germans - working in the region have packed up their bags to return home, said Grund, but they are very concerned about how leaders can calm the situation. Pyongyang on Friday poured further fuel on the fire, saying that it could not guarantee the safety of staff at foreign missions in the country beyond April 10.

"In a figurative sense, the safety switches on the guns have already been unlocked: an accident or any imprudent move could lead to a sitation that could no longer be controlled," Grund said. It could perhaps even lead to war.

A South Korean soldier stands guard outside the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) office in Paju, Gyeonggi province of South Korea, April 3, 2013. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) banned South Korean workers' entrance to the joint industrial complex at the DPRK's border town of Kaesong, only allowing the workers to leave Kaesong to come back to Seoul, the unification ministry said. Copyright: Xinhua/Park Jin-hee

North Korea has also closed off the joint Kaesong industrial complex to South Koreans, allowing workers only to leave Kaesong to return to Seoul

Many politicians in Germany share this concern - and are placing clear emphasis on de-escalation. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for prudence from all sides. China, as a neighbor to North Korea and its most important ally, should work to temper Pyongyang, Westerwelle said. Johannes Pflug, a Social Democrats parliamentarian and Vice-Chair of the German-Korean Parliamentary Group, said that China and the United States must work together to moderate the situtation. Pflug, who last visited North Korea in October, said China and the US must jointly create institutional parameters for conducting international talks.

Germany as mediator?

Grund, for his part, doubts that China can still influence the North Korean leadership. Chinese politicians and military leaders "no longer have a handle on North Korean power structures," Grund said. And China itself is worried that North Korea could one day point its arms at the country.

At the same time, both Beijing and Pyongyang have expressed interest in Germany playing an impartial mediator role. "North Koreans are also looking for economic cooperation and further education of their people in the ministry of finance and trade," Grund said. German-Korean relations have a long history: the former GDR was one of North Korea's most important partners in the former East Bloc. Germany is one of the few Western countries in the world to maintain an embassy in Pyongyang.

Ruprecht Polenz, Chair of the Committe on Foreign Affairs in German Parliament, doubts that North Korea will acquiesce to the wishes of international community for it to dispense with its nuclear weapons. "I fear hardly anyone will be able to convince North Korea to cease with its plan of becoming a nuclear power," Polenz said. North Korea no longer has the economic ability to finance large, conventional armed forces, he pointed out. "That's why North Korea is placing greater emphasis on nuclear components," he said.

Manfred Grund
Copyright: Manfred Grund

Manfred Grund

"80 percent domestic politics"

Pflug also doesn't believe that "the North Koreans will allow their atomic weapons to be negotiated away," prompting him to think that neighboring nations must better equip themselves. Still, Pflug said he thought North Korea would tone done its rhetoric after April 15, the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, which is celebrated with major military parades. After all, the country's threatening gestures are "about 80 percent domestic politics" on the part of the freshly installed and very young President Kim Jong-un, Pflug said.

"He is really just a whippersnapper who must stabilize his position in relation to the old generals who already served under his father," Grund observed.

Ultimately, no one wants war, he said. At the end of his Easter trip to North Korea, Grund said he gave several high-ranking security officials pennants from the German national soccer team. "I told them: 'Better to shoot goals than to shoot at each other," he recalled. And they seemed to like that notion, he added.

DW.DE